If you’re like most people, the mere mention of films like ’The Royal Tenenbaums,’ ‘Juno,’ ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ ‘Sideways,’ ‘I Heart Huckabees,’ or ‘Lost in Translation’ invokes one of three reactions: “I hate pretentious drivel,” “I heart quirky dramedies,” or “what’s a Tenenbaum?” So for those who’ve filled their cinematic diet with nothing but ‘Crank’ and ‘Doomsday’ for the last ten years, I‘ll explain. The end of the twentieth century birthed a strange sub-genre of film that isn’t exactly drama, comedy, or really anything that resembles reality. The characters are outcasts and eccentrics, the situations they find themselves in are contrived and farfetched, and their dialogue is perfectly structured and all-too self aware. Yet there’s a growing audience that looks past the genre’s surface-level trappings and minimalistic conventions to savor the actual intentions of the filmmakers. Most of these films weren’t created to be ostentatious, arrogant, or strange -- in fact, they’ve been meticulously constructed to peer into deeper truths than some may have the patience to discover.
Rookie director Noam Murro and writer Mark Poirier’s ’Smart People’ is the latest product of this peculiar neo-dramedy subgenre. When a miserable widower and pompous Literature Professor named Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) has a seizure and isn’t allowed to drive for six months, his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in to help him get to work each day. Lawrence wants little to do with Chuck and grows frustrated with the man-child’s blunt observations and impulsive nature. Naturally, the professor’s 17-year old daughter Vanessa (Ellen Paige) and college-student son James (Ashton Holmes) don’t share their father’s sentiment and grow to like uncle Chuck. However, as Lawrence tries to win the affections of an emergency room doctor and former student (Sarah Jessica Parker), he begins to realize that Chuck is a positive force in his family, one that’s working to make them all live life to the fullest.
After reading so many negative reviews of ‘Smart People,’ I was surprised by how many critics missed the point. Murro and Poirier wanted to create a family of “educated idiots” -- people who were incredibly intelligent but lacked fundamental common sense. At the same time, they didn’t want their characters to come across as unlikable, unredeemable jerks. To their credit, they strike an effective balance between the two. Quaid’s professor is unbearable because he's haunted by a painful past, Paige’s daughter is unapproachable because she longs to please her father, and Church’s fratboy uses humor to mask the intensity of his affection for his family. Honestly, Quaid could have easily overplayed his role and lost my investment, Paige could have come off as precocious and forfeited the authenticity of her story, and Church could have hammed it up and left the film's tone in shambles. However, their sincere and consistent performances managed to inadvertently pluck quite a few heart strings.
I may have enjoyed ‘Smart People,’ but I have no intention of suggesting this one is a sure-thing or a crowd-pleaser. I have no doubt some will absolutely loathe Quaid and Parker’s relationship, Paige’s portrayal of an Alex P. Keaton Reaganite, and the majority of plot developments that pull the Wetherhold family out of their social funk. Even I have to admit the film has some potentially insurmountable problems (Holmes’ character is painfully underdeveloped and the relationship with Parker is a stretch). Still, I was entirely caught up in the family dynamic between Quaid, Church, and Paige. I stopped viewing them as elitist socialites and started to see them as damaged people with some serious flaws. I started to appreciate Murro’s reliance on his actors over Poirier’s dialogue, their expressions over their words, and their interactions over the plot. By the time the credits rolled, I had genuinely enjoyed my stay with the Wetherholds and found myself hoping it would all work out for them in the end.
Is ‘Smart People’ perfect? Nope. Will it appeal to everyone reading this review? Definitely not. Regardless, fans of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ ‘Juno,’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ will find a lot to love in this tale of dysfunction and misplaced love. It earned a spot on my shelf and, just to up the sap-factor even higher, a warm little nook in my heart.
In spite of the film's drab and wintery palette, the Blu-ray edition of ’Smart People’ features an admirable 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that makes quite an impression. Colors are washed out but stable, undersaturated but strong. More importantly, skintones are relatively natural, blacks are deep and dependable, and contrast is comfortable and spot on. Detail is also worth mentioning since fine textures, background text, and objects cloaked in shadow look far better than they do on the DVD. Likewise, Dennis Quaid and Thomas Haden Church aren’t getting any younger and the folds and creases in their faces have been cleanly preserved in the BD presentation. Sarah Jessica Parker may not be thrilled by how much older she looks in high definition but, for our purposes, the fact that her on-screen makeup does a poor job of masking several budding wrinkles is a testament to the transfer’s precision. To top it all off, I didn’t detect any source noise, artifacting, crush, or bothersome DNR.
I do have a pair of quibbles, but it’s a bit unclear as to whether they should be attributed to the original print or minor deficiencies in the transfer. First, a handful of shots are softer than the rest of the film -- while I’m happy Disney didn’t resort to slapping edge enhancement on the offending shots, the loss of clarity is still a slight (albeit infrequent) distraction. Second, there are a few scenes where Quaid looks quite flushed (specifically during his first visit to the hospital). It’s particularly jarring since Parker and Paige’s faces look milky and pale in adjacent shots. Ultimately, neither issue evolves into an outright problem, but videophiles will certainly take note of the brief discrepancies.
It’s nice to see some studios throw their full technical support behind a film regardless of its inherent limitations. Despite the fact that ’Smart People’ is a quiet, quiet flick, Disney has still blessed the Blu-ray edition of the film with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48kHz/ 24-Bit). Dialogue is crisp, nicely balanced across the front channels, and well prioritized in the mix -- I never had to strain to hear any lines, even when the actors dropped their voices to near-whispers. The whimsical, light-footed soundtrack sounds just as good, with clean instrumentation and sharp high-end tones. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to praise here. The rear speakers kick in to support interior acoustics and general ambience, but there isn’t a lot to hear other than minor restaurant chatter and rustling books in a classroom. The track’s dynamics are underwhelming, my LFE channel got the week off, and there aren’t any standout sequences to be found.
Still, it’s tough to complain since a film like ‘Smart People’ would be absolutely ridiculous if it packed the sort of punch that accompanies a 5-star action or thriller track. Ultimately, ‘Smart People’ sounds as good as it’s ever going to sound… it just doesn’t have the oomph required to significantly set itself apart from the standard DVD (or the basic Dolby mix included on this release for that matter).
’Smart People’ arrives on Blu-ray with the same efficient supplemental package that appears on the concurrently released DVD. “Efficient” may seem like a death sentence when it comes to special features, but don’t be too quick to judge. Despite the fact that the disc only includes the basics, the material contained therein is concise, extensive, and charming. My only gripe is that the video content is presented in standard definition.
I know there are plenty of people out there who hate flicks like ‘Smart People’ and wait anxiously by their keyboards to trash similar films across the net. Me? I really dug this foray into upper-class dysfunction and enjoyed my time with the characters, Poirier’s story, and the actors’ subtle performances. The film is well represented on Blu-ray. The disc features an excellent video transfer, a faithful (but underwhelming) uncompressed audio track, and a revealing (but limited) selection of supplements. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this one to everyone, but anyone who enjoys films like ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ or ‘Juno' should give ‘Smart People’ a spin.