Friday, April 11, 2008

Mild genius (Smart People)

Smart People
Grade: C

After watching Smart People, I plan to present to the highest filmmaking authorities evidence of the existence of a new genre. I call it the Moustache Film.

This new genre will include any and all earnest family dramas in which the male stars each grow facial hair to stress their grounded sincerity. In Smart People, Dennis Quaid grows a full beard to play a petulant literature professor. Thomas Haden Church grows a light moustache to play his adopted brother, a congenital slacker graduate of the University of a Thousand Joints. Ellen Page does not grow a moustache to play Quaid’s Alex- P. Keaton of a teenage daughter. But it must have been tempting.

Smart People is the type of serious-minded, nicely observed, affectionately rendered project, from director Noam Murro, that feels like the cinematic version of kissing your sister (or in this case, your uncle - just watch!). Indie, but not too indie. A little different, but far from daring. Yet thoughtful, well written and strongly acted, which on some level you must respect.

Quaid plays a self-sufficient, self-absorbed genius professor. His idea of writing a book is to pen an unreadably brilliant treatise on poetry. His idea of a date is pontificating for 45 minutes on literary theory over dinner. Escaping his attention are his protective but frigid daughter, his collegian son, and the sibling that has moved into the spare room. Not to mention the name of every student who has ever taken his class.

When he suffers a seizure and loses his license, he suddenly must depend on those little people surrounding him known as “relatives.” Long scarred by the death of his wife, he lightly and clumsily treads into a relationship with a younger doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student whose student-dom he does not recall. The imperfect romance blossoms, but his personality is not exactly suited. He is a man without social skills awakening to his need for others.

The film’s intelligent ordinariness gets a wonderful burst from Quaid. He is part of a quiet trend that’s going largely unremarked upon – the young generational star from the eighties who is now making a living off wrinkled brows and pattern baldness. (John Cusack in Grace Is Gone. Matt Dillon in Crash and Factotum). Recently I watched The Right Stuff, with Quaid's boyishly sunny-faced portrayal of the Mercury Program astronaut Gordon Cooper. This makes his job here even more interesting. There seems to be a multitude of lives between the two men.

What makes Quaid’s professor sufferable is that in watching his condensed story, we see a task that we unspeakingly face each day – how to be a better person. While his situation might be more greatly exaggerated than most, it’s still a struggle shared by all. And for that reason, he never loses us. Even when he can’t remember our name.


Daniel G. said...

Nice review, and interesting...we gave it the same grade, but I seemed to have been a lot more harsh than you've been here. Good observation on the facial hair. Haden Church wouldn't have been quite so wacky without it.

K. Bowen said...

Thank you, Daniel.
While I understand the desire to be harsh to a film like this, I didn't find a lot of offense in what it was doing. Compared to other films like it, it is fairly mild.