What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this film -- which co-stars Ellen Page, who'll no doubt attract a fair share of young Juno fans -- is more dramatic than comic, tackling heavy themes like grief and parental indifference. There's also an iffy sexual interaction -- and it's clearly played out as such -- and a surprise pregnancy (though unlike Juno, it's not the central plot line). Both grown-ups and teens discuss sexual matters candidly, and there's some swearing (including "f--k"), a fair amount of drinking (an adult buys drinks for a minor), and teen drug use (again, instigated by an adult).
What's the story?
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a brilliant but begrudging Carnegie Mellon University literature professor who can barely conceal his indifference for his students. He wasn't always been this way, but years of grief over his wife's death have solidified into a stubborn apathy. His teenage daughter, super-bright but lonely Vanessa (Ellen Page), is hurting, too, though she's loathe to admit it; she's too busy doing the laundry, cooking meals, and aiming for perfect SATs. And his son, James (Ashton Holmes), would rather live in the dorms than be with them. So perhaps it's serendipitous that Lawrence's slacker brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), needs a place to stay. And that, after a serious fall, Lawrence winds up in the hospital, where he meets former student-turned-ER doctor Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), who once had a schoolgirl crush on him but has now grown brittle, too. The new arrivals jolt Lawrence awake, forcing him to take a long, hard look at his life.
Is it any good?
Mostly smart, sometimes slack, SMART PEOPLE -- which is based on a book by Mark Jude Poirier, who also wrote the script -- refreshingly allows its characters to develop at their own pace. Their discoveries feel natural; their responses unforced and believable. It's a credit to first-time director Noam Murro who, though he makes mistakes, is able to steer his actors into portrayals that are authentic and true. Page is sardonic once more, but this is no Juno retread; in fact, she filmed this first. She ably modulates her emotions to best fit the script. Same for Parker, who flexes her dramatic muscles here. Like his character, Haden Church ingratiates himself successfully -- a potentially creepy storyline is made less so, thanks to his and Page's talent. And Quaid deserves praise for a complex performance.
But there is one big quibble. The first half of the movie is notably more interesting than the second, maybe because the latter half moves inexorably toward a happily-ever-after ending. Lawrence is far more compelling -- and real -- when he's stuck, and his transformation, when it happens, seems hurried along. And while Quaid and Parker have a surprisingly believable chemistry, it's not clear what binds them together when their characters clearly have enough reasons to be apart. Perfect it's not, but Smart People is admirable enough and definitely worth a watch.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about the characters' complicated relationships. Do they seem realistic? Why can't Lawrence connect with anyone? What drives him to change? Is the change believable? Are he and Janet a good couple? What about Vanessa? Why does she take on all that she does? Families can also discuss how this movie is similar to and different from other Hollywood films.