How could Smart People make such a Dumb Movie?

It must have looked good on paper. By that, I don’t mean the script, but the cast. A movie called Smart People about smart people starring smart people like Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Hayden Church and Ellen Page. That sounds like a movie I would by dying to see. But It’s one of the worst films I’ve seen in months, a fact that became obvious within the first 15 minutes, if not the first few frames. It’s amazing with a director how quickly you can tell if you’re in good hands, or not. In this case, had I not been on the job I would have walked out. A romantic comedy with little evidence of romance or comedy, Smart People is so off-key, so misguided, so bad, it’s a mystery how it got ever made, and why such talented actors agreed to get involved. It’s as if they all fell into some kind of Hollywood black hole.

It makes  you wonder what convoluted fluke of showbiz networking allowed it to happen. The film’s various producers have among them a list of impressive credits: Jerry Macguire, As Good as it Gets, Brokeback Mountain, Sideways.  But those who have left their creative stamp on it—the screenwriter, the director and the composer—have never done this kind of thing before. They’ve never worked on a movie. Noam Murro, who makes his feature directing debut with Smart People, is an award-winning director of TV commercials. He’s won DGA accolades for celebrating Nike, Adidas, Bud LIght and eBay—and on YouTube,  you can watch his Hummer spot, a one-minute romantic comedy about a robot that impregnates Godzilla, who gives birth to a Hummer H3 (“the little monster”). He tinkered with the Smart People script, which marks the screenwriting debut fof Mark Poirier, a novelist and short story writer. Nuno Bettencourt, who composed the score, is the former lead guitarist for the rock band Extreme.

I mention the composer only because I wanted to strangle him. His torpid, paint-by-numbers score, driven by a lot of noodly acoustic guitar, mirrors the editing with irritating symmetry. And it conspires with a surfeit of flabby montage sequences to wallpaper yawning gaps in the script. Occasionally there are embarrassing which sound like a cruel joke at the expense of the script—lines like “where is the narrator in my life?”

But I get ahead of myself. Back to the actors. Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a grumpy Victorian literature professor who’s mired in the low-pressure murk of a midlife crisis. He hates his students, who hate him back. He’s written an erudite book that can’t find a publisher. And, most crucially, he’s never recovered from the death of his wife. In the role of his over-protective daughter, Vanessa, a smart-ass Young Republican, Ellen Page ditches her punk style to model an endless series of sweater vests. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) mixes it up as Lawrence’s adopted brother, Chuck, a jaunty n’er-do-well hedonist who has decided to crash at his house. And Sarah Jessica Parker portrays a glum physician named Janet, an ex-student of the professor, who revives an unrequited crush on him when he awakes from a concussion in her emergency ward—having landed on his head while climbing a fence to retrieve a briefcase from his impounded car. Gosh, romantic comedy can be such hard work.

Smart People is one of those movies where you spend more time worrying about the actors’ well-being than about their characters. They all look miserable, as if they can’t wait to get off the set. Maybe Dennis Quaid is just trying too hard to play a curmudgeon, but he is so gnarled and obtuse—even after his character falls in love—that he makes empathy preposterous.

So-called smart movies about so-called smart people specialize in these jaded professor types lost in academic limbo and haunted by unpublished manuscripts—from the Michael Douglas character wrestling with writer’s block in Wonder Boys to the snobby misanthrope played by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale. They tend to be overwrought creations—towering intellects divorced from their emotions. And considering that scripts are written by writers, it’s remarkable how wildly inauthentic most scripts about writers actually are. (The notable exception is the sadly under-appreciated Starting Out in the Evening, a far superior story of a frustrated writer (Frank Langella) who falls in love to the consternation of his protective daughter (Lily Taylor)

In Smart People, the dialogue tries so hard to be smart that virtually none of it rings true. Excuse me for spoiling a plot point (if you’re still reading this, I don’t expect you’ll see the film), but there’s a scene in which Quaid’s character gets a publishing deal, goes to New York to meet his editor, and is surprised to learn that the editor has drastically cut and revised his manuscript. Which is ridiculous. In the real world, that simply wouldn’t happen without some discussion between author and editor.

Parker, meanwhile, just goes through motions, looking like lshe would give anything to be back on the set of Sex and the City. I kept wondering if she was thinking the same thing I was: Yikes, what’s is wrong with Dennis Quaid?? He looks terrible. There is zero chemistry between Quaid and Parker, to the point that their first kiss arrives like an ugly, unintended joke. And when her character tells his character that he’s “not unattractive,” you want to yell at the screen, “Are you insane? He’s alarmingly unattractive! There is something wrong with him!”

That leaves Church and Page, who at least appear to be less miserable in their roles than the other actors. Church, who has the fun role, is quite amusing. Gliding through the havoc of the script, he gives the film its only real spark of life. As for Page, Canada’s Oscar-nominated sweetheart, she gives a precise, shrewd performance, careful not to overplay her role. The camera captures some subtle moments from her, and she unleashes a couple of zingers. But even Page isn’t immune to a line-reading deadness that the director has somehow elicited from all these fine actors. And while Page’s Young Republican makeover  would appear to be a departure, her glib, insolence seem like a pale facsimile of what she was doing in Juno. So again, I found myself distracted by the fate of the performer. Page is hugely talented, but if she lets herself get typecast in her own mannerisms, fatigue will soon set it. Fortunately, there seems little chance that Smart People will be seen by enough people to have much impact.

When you see a great movie, it’s like a miracle—despite the talent at work, you marvel at how all the countless things could have gone wrong did not go wrong. Behind every masterpiece is a mystery. But a flop that goes as i
nexplicably sour as Smart People can be just as bewildering.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.