Laughing at miserable people

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

More often than not, when you walk out of a movie theater you are able to immediately answer your friend when he asks, "Well, what did you think?" Maybe you loved it, maybe you loathed it, or maybe it was somewhere in the middle. Whatever the case, you are able to answer.

Grosvenor Park Productions
Grosvenor Park Productions

When my buddy asked me what I thought of "Smart People," I said nothing. We walked a little further in silence as I tried to decide and finally I said something like, "I'm not sure yet." For the record, he wasn't either. Maybe we just aren't smart enough to process "Smart People" that quickly. Or maybe it is a movie that's unique to the point where it simply is not as easy to judge as quickly as you might, for example, a Sandler flick.

The film, as the title suggests, centers around a group of intelligent folk. They are not a happy group, however. In fact, they are quite the opposite. Dennis Quaid is Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, a potbellied, self-absorbed widower and father of two - a sarcastic Ellen Page and a brooding Ashton Holmes. Both kids are - you got it -smart, but just like dad, they are not happy. Wetherhold gets hurt under some fairly amusing circumstances, winds up in the ER and is not allowed to drive for six months. That opens the door for two more smart people: Sarah Jessica Parker's doctor, a former student of Wetherhold turned love interest, and Haden Church's Chuck, adopted brother turned personal driver.

Wetherhold is unhappy because he has pretty much given up trying without his wife; his brilliant daughter, who worships him, is unhappy because he is; his son is unhappy because his dad doesn't pay attention to him; the good doctor is unhappy because she has fallen for an incredibly selfish man; Chuck's unhappy because everyone around him seems to be that way and it just sort of bums him out.

So everyone's unhappy and yet, "Smart People" is a comedy. It's a strange mix. Mark Jude Poirier's script is good, and the dialogue has its funny moments. The laughs are genuine, but so is the dark cloud of gloom that seems to be picking on these characters. In other words, it feels a bit strange to laugh when everyone is so damned miserable!

The ensemble cast is fantastic, highlighted by Haden Church, who might be the best actor nobody's really heard of. Much like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War," I can't help but wonder if Haden Church makes "Smart People" seem better than it actually is. Regardless, Chuck steals every scene he is in and provides the majority of comic relief. Page is good, too, but I hope she doesn't allow herself to get typecast as the sarcastic-mouthy-girl this early in her promising career.

Finally, in the last 20 minutes or so everyone suddenly turns it around. Or, more accurately, Wetherhold turns it around, which has the domino effect of allowing everyone else to be happy, too.

I like happy endings as much as anybody, but again I'm conflicted. First, we laugh while everyone's sad. Then, a movie that is different largely because of its stubbornly solemn attitude does a last minute about-face and joins the happily-ever-after mainstream. It's so confusing!

So what did I think?

I didn't have an answer to that when we first left the theater. It took about an hour, but when my friend asked me again, I said, "I think I liked it." I'm not smart enough to say for sure.

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