Smart people will enjoy ‘Smart People’

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

What a relief! Imagine a movie where people talk about their problems rather than just shooting each others’ brains out! If such a premise sounds kinda new and appealing to you, don’t miss “Smart People,” coming soon to the Visualite in Downtown Staunton.

It’s about this family (dysfunctional, of course) of smart people who are all just slightly annoyed at life. The daddy, played by busy B-movie star Dennis Quaid, is this literary-type university professor – and have you ever seen a movie with a happy professor in it? Of course not. His daughter is Ellen Page, last year’s “Juno,” just as smart and sassy this time, but in the guise of a goal-oriented young Republican. She’s adorable, anyway.

Our prof’s brother is bit-of-a-doofus slacker Thomas Haden Church, forever sponging off Quaid and delightfully irresponsible. Quaid’s son is Ashton Holmes in a throwaway role. Coulda been an interesting character, but really not room enough for too many quaint, kooky folks in just one talky movie. Besides, no one his age could possibly sell a poem to The New Yorker.

Finally comes the love interest, Sarah Jessica Parker, who’s nice and almost-normal and low-key. Nice casting, interesting people, clever dialogue by first-time screenwriter Mark Poirier, and crisp direction by Noam Murro. What’s not to like?

OK, so the plot is a little formulaic. Still, this crowd of smart people is folks you’d like to hang out with just to listen to their witty repartee. I mean, we’ve been through the widower-meets-new-love-interest-to-dismay-of-kids before. It fits like a comfy old glove, so you can just slip into it and enjoy the people.

This well may be Thomas Haden Church’s best role, although he was dynamite in his 2004 Oscar-nommed role in “Sideways.” He plays a slacker, a loser of course, but with a pinch of wisdom and maturity to pass along to his niece, who multitasks all over the place, studying for a perfect SAT score, despising her dad’s new sweetie-pie, making an inappropriate play for her uncle, and tossing off sarcastic quips by the boatload.

Quaid, like any movie teacher worth his oats, hates his students and gets his jollies by humiliating them. Not exactly your Mr. Nice Guy, but he’s lost his way as well as his wife, and you want to like him even though he’s a jerk.

Nice mix of characters, isn’t it? Did you enjoy “Wonder Boys” and/or “Feast of Love” in recent years? “Smart People” slips into that category very easily. No gunfights, no car chases, just smart people trying to work out their personal problems and acting funny – human, that is – along the way. They make you care, all of them.

Most of all, don’t refuse to see this film just because it’s another story about a disgruntled teacher. Lord knows there have been plenty of them (discounting, if you will, Ronald Reagan’s 1951 masterpiece “Bedtime for Bonzo”). And plot-wise, this one isn’t much different. But if you’re a closet fan of that old box office murderer Character Development, you’re in for a treat.

Meanwhile, back at the Dixie:

There are at least two good movies playing right now at the other little theater in Staunton. “Leatherheads,” for George Clooney fans as well as those looking for a bit of lighter entertainment, will enjoy his goofball take on early pro football. And on the more dramatic side, “Stop Loss” is a no-nonsense polemic on the plight of Army guys who aren’t allowed to serve their time and get out of the service. Worthwhile think piece.

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press.

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