Ever been to a pompous party made worse by some earnest dope strumming acoustic ballads to a small crowd of fawning admirers? Well, Smart People is that shindig and Nuno Bettencourt, former Extreme guitarist and composer of the film’s score, is that insufferable jerk. For Noam Murro’s prototypical indie drivel about a group of dysfunctional intellectuals behaving foolishly, Bettencourt swamps everything in an obnoxious brand of heartfelt fingerpicking mush. His sonic assault provides insistently irritating musical accompaniment to a grating narrative about misanthropic Carnegie Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), his robotic Young Republican daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), his son (Ashton Holmes), who is disinterested in the family, and his scam-artist adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). The fact that these eccentrics are simultaneously smart and not-so-smart gives the title its cutie-pie ambiguity, but there’s no question that the film itself is a dreary amalgam of indie clichés made bearable only by Church’s ability to wring mild humor from a slacker role schematically engineered for adorably sarcastic comedic relief. Smart People is a borderline-excruciating exercise in trying to replicate the eccentric charm of Little Miss Sunshine, pulling its nasty punches—specifically, Lawrence’s heartlessness—in order to make room for third-act uplift, and defining its protagonists through idiosyncratic (and metaphorical) habits and hang-ups that reek of screenwriting affectation. As Vanessa, Page does Juno MacGuff via Alex P. Keaton, meaning her college-bound conservative is a smarty-pants nightmare prone to saying things like, “The socio-sexual mores have really shifted,” and who’s rightly dubbed a “monster” by Chuck. Lawrence’s relationship difficulties with a former student and ER doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) afford the requisite conflict that leads to climactic catharsis and togetherness, which comes shortly after Lawrence tells his daughter, “I don’t think you’re happy, Vanessa,” after which she replies, in the script’s groan-worthy style, “Well, you’re not very happy, and you’re my role model.” Then again, such twaddle is about all that can be expected from a film unimaginative enough to stage a classroom discussion about misery and then, with Bettencourt’s tripe rising to a crescendo, solemnly cut away to all its lonely characters.
Another shitty-looking movie makes the leap to DVD appearing as if its digital transfer was supervised by Midas himself: Shadow delineation is fantastic, and though the colors appear to have received some sort of boost, the image never feels overly saturated. (Only the occasional edge enhancement deters from the viewing experience-aside from, ya know, the actual story.) Dialogue is clear and the surround work is quaintly immersive.
Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Jude Poirier chat about big teeth and cute boys, among other things, on a commentary track that is chockablock with elaborately anecdotal stretches, as in Murro's description of where he met Ellen Page for the first time and what they ate. On a standard making-of featurette, Poirier reveals how he had to put the characters to paper after knowing them for so long inside his head, with Murro making a fine case for the house in the film as its own character. Rounding out the disc: the two-minute "Not So Smart" blooper reel, nine deleted scenes and a bunch of previews.
Smart People is—nah, too easy.