Tina Fey

Dysfunctional family seriocomedy is well cast, but characters and conflicts lack the sharper definition of similar recent exercises.

Novelist-turned-scenarist Mark Jude Poirier and commercials director Noam Murro make a competent but just mildly diverting transition to features with “Smart People.” Dysfunctional family seriocomedy is well cast, but characters and conflicts lack the sharper definition of similar recent exercises like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Upside of Anger” and Noah Baumbach’s films. It ends up less a dark comedy than a medium-gray one, the impact further muffled by its marinating in a tepid pool of generic soft-rock sounds. Unlikely to catch fire in theaters, these “People” will eventually find their company most welcome on cable.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed English-lit professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon. He’s bored with teaching and contemptuous toward students, and has had his latest tome turned down by the usual academic publishers.

Things are also sour on the home front. University enrollee son James (Ashton Holmes) barely speaks to him. Daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a hypermanaging Young Republican, operates as dad’s verbal sparring partner and substitute housewife.

Lawrence is dismayed when ne’er-do-well adoptive brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) shows up unexpectedly, broke as usual and wanting to crash for a while. He’d be refused, but alas: Climbing a fence to retrieve his briefcase from his yet-again-impounded car, Lawrence toppled, suffering a head injury. ER chief Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) informs him he can’t legally drive for six months, in case real brain damage surfaces. Ergo, wholly unreliable Chuck must be tolerated as his chauffeur.

The curmudgeonly prof has a telling fault of never remembering his students, past or present. A hospital worker informs him on the sly that not only was Janet in his class, she harbored an unrequited schoolgirl crush. Long rusty with dating, or even being pleasant, Lawrence blows their first date. A second goes well until Janet has a sudden, unexplained bout of postcoital heebees.

Abandoned by dad’s new preoccupations, Vanessa develops a sort of friendship with middle-aged polar opposite Chuck, who views her as a near-“android” who needs loosening up.

This relationship seems forced, as does Janet and Lawrence’s chemistry. Perhaps if Quaid played up his character’s misanthropy more (he can’t help but be likable in a nice change-of-pace turn), or Parker (in a vague part) less glum, there would be more of a frisson. Holmes’ James is barely developed, getting far less screen time than Page, who’s solid in yet another smartass role.

Despite so-so material, Church lends the movie undeniable juice as the family member who’s the biggest mess, yet also the happiest and most emotionally open.

Location-shot widescreen presentation is pro but flavorless. Nuno Bettencourt’s soundtrack of mono-flavored folksy guitar strummings and lame songs (sample lyric: “Whirlwind uh/She’s a turnin’ “) are contemporary fern-bar music that make one long for the cutting-edge days of Seals & Crofts and Bread.

Smart People

Production

A Miramax Films release, presented with Groundswell Prods., in association with Sherezade, Visitor Pictures, of a Corduroy Films, Table Top Films production, in association with QED Intl. Produced by Bridget Johnson, Michael Costigan, Michael London, Bruna Papandrea. Executive producers, Omar Amanat, Steffen Aumuller, Marina Grasic, Jennifer Roth, Kenneth Orkin, Ed Rugoff, Said Boudarga. Co-producers, Claus Clausen, Glenn Stewart, Deborah Aquila, John Woldenberg. Directed by Noam Murro. Screenplay, Mark Jude Poirier.

Crew

Camera (color), Toby Irwin; editors, Robert Frazen, Yana Gorskaya; music, Nuno Bettencourt; production designer, Patti Podesta; costume designer, Amy Westcott; art director, Ron Mason; set decorator, Teresa Visinare; sound (Dolby Digital), Jim Emswiller; supervising sound editor, Sandy Gendler; assistant directors, Richard Graves, Eric Sherman; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Jennifer Smith. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2008. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, David Denman, Camille Mana.

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