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Smart People

Director: Noam Murro
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Hayden Church

Is anyone not tired of “quirky” movies yet? Dysfunctional families, sad-sack weirdos wearing the bandages of their suicide attempts or being in love with a family member or just not finding their place in the world? I am. I am officially freakin’ sick of these movies, and Smart People is the dumb film that did it.

It’s a film in which improbable characters are mashed together with inadequate back story and motivation, and improbable things happen and we find out that in the end, life works out and even though each of us is a unique and bruised little flower, everybody can get along. Hugs!

The ostensible (but overshadowed) main character is a middle-aged college professor who is so hateful and self-involved that Dennis Quaid needed to grow an ill-kempt beard and remember to scowl constantly. You can see him thinking it: No smiles! (His manic smile in other films has rivaled Tom Cruise’s for sheer psychotic intensity.) Why he’s such a jerk is never dealt with. He’s been one for years and years, though, until one day at random he decides to ask Sarah Jessica Parker, who is also never explained or developed, for a date.

Not one of the “quirky” characters in this “wacky dysfunctional” family is every explained. Quaid is a widower. His wife died in some manner some number of years ago and was some kind of, you know, wife, so we’re to presume Quaid never recovered. We’re given no clue as to whether he was ever a happy, likable guy or always sucked the air out of a room.

He ends up dating Sarah Jessica Parker. Those who know her from that Sex and the City thing will find it not so surprising that she should end up sad and alone, but remember, she’s playing a different character here. Why she dates this guy, why she sleeps with this guy, never gets explained. She’s just that pathetic, I guess.

Quaid has a quirky brother, amusingly played by Thomas Hayden Church in a role more entertaining than Parker’s, but every bit as thankless. He’s the adopted brother who’s a sage loser constantly trying to bum cash. Why is he like this? We must suppose it’s a natural consequence of being adopted, just as Quaid’s being a bastard is the inevitable result of having been widowed somewhere in the past.

Quaid has a son, but the character does not contribute a single meaningful moment to the film, so we’ll ignore him. That way we sooner get to Ellen Page, who is the the film’s saving grace (except not even she quite saves the film). The incredibly young Oscar nominee for Juno plays a girl devoted to her father, a friendless Young Republican whose soul has been extinguished by her father’s misery. There’s so much more development that could’ve been done here (with more consistency and less aimless diversion into quirky quasi-incest, maybe), but Page’s character is the only one whose quirks seem to be explained as more than just writer-driven wackiness, and she plays her part with remarkable sensitivity and complexity. On the surface, she’s a mini-Janeane Garofalo, but under the sharp wit, there are longing glances and complex emotions playing across her face. The girl is tremendous to watch, and we can hope will soon be seen exclusively in films much better than this one.

If you’re an indiscriminate fan of “quirk,” depression or, most notably, young Miss Page, you might as well see the film. It’s not incompetently directed by a first-time director, and the cast is pretty damned good despite the material’s weaknesses and the incredibly blah soundtrack. If you’re not drawn to any of those three factors, skip it entirely until it shows up on the in-flight menu of a cross-country plane and you’ve got nothing left to lose.