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Miramax Films

Smart casting

Movies | Smart People gets saved by outstanding acting

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

Pity the uptight and brainy. They've been getting the short end of the stick from filmmakers for decades now, reflexively overworking in their gloomy offices (probably as English professors or something boring like that) until Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Streisand, or Sarah Jessica Parker comes along to rescue them, usually by driving them crazy until they realize they're in love.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is the latest of these human turtles in Smart People, and Janet Hartigan (Parker) his lifeline, though the genre has changed in recent years. Now, rather than indulging in a bicycle chase down Lombard Street in San Francisco, the characters just sleep together, smoke pot, hit on their uncles, and wittily posture about suburban ennui (yes, it's rated R). I miss the bicycle.

Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Poirier have been saved in grand fashion by their actors, who turn in uncompromising, funny performances one and all. Juno's Ellen Page plays Wetherhold's bratty high-school-age daughter Vanessa with an unholy joy, and Thomas Haden Church is adorable as Chuck, her post-frat-boy uncle.

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Quaid and Page do things for this picture that are almost impossible. Wetherhold is spoiled and petty, but he and his daughter both have the same kind of sad, ruined dignity. When Chuck takes Vanessa out for a night on the town, it becomes clear that this snobby little girl doesn't actually have any friends. Poirier's quotable script has put the onus entirely on Page, and she rises to the occasion, neither feeling sorry for herself nor gunning for cheap laughs.

Church as Chuck, though, is the star of this show, mostly by trying not to be. He just shuffles amiably through the movie, staring out from under his worried, furrowed forehead at his troubled brother and his crazy niece. He wants to help, but he can't believe things can be fixed after they've gone this sour. Watching this movie, I know the feeling. Luckily, we were both wrong.

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