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Smart People (2008)

Miramax Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 8/12/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/10/2008

A trend which has grown over the last decade, right along with the rise of DVD, is the "Director's Cut" or "Extended Version" of a movie. Apparently, the idea is to give the consumer more bang for their buck and include as much usable footage as possible. In some cases, this is a good thing, but we usually find ourselves with scenes that add nothing to the film and only slow things down. However, we rarely see anyone go in the other direction and take things out of a movie. (To be fair, some "Director's Cuts" are shorter than the theatrical version.) But, I think we've all seen movies where we wish they could be whittled down to just some key scenes. That was my reaction to Smart People.

Dennis Quaid stars in Smart People as Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. He is a widower and he lives with his teenage daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page). His son Jim (Ashton Holmes) is a student at the University. Lawrence is a standoffish and socially awkward person. He never remembers the names of his students, always double parks, and appears to do anything to avoid talking to people. Falling an incident with a fence, Lawrence finds himself in the hospital, being treated by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). He's informed that he's had a seizure and won't be able to drive. Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Lawrence's deadbeat adoptive brother, has just arrived in town and nominates himself to be Lawrence's chauffeur. This sudden change in his life creates turmoil for the reclusive Lawrence, and he finds himself dealing with Chuck's lunacy and a sudden desire to ask Dr. Hartigan out on a date.

Smart People is a dramedy which easily falls into the "slice of life" category. But, it even goes beyond that and the movie almost plays like a documentary, as it examines the lives of a group of damage people. In classic Hollywood screenwriting style, a major event or plot point occurs about 20 minutes into the film. Screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier eschews that notion here, as the turning point, Lawrence's accident, happens just a few minutes into the movie. The bulk of the rest of the film is a direct result of that incident. If he hadn't gotten hurt, he wouldn't have met Dr. Hartigan and he would have simply dismissed Chuck. We watch Lawrence, who has clearly cut himself off from the rest of the world, come out of his shell somewhat. Along with the other issues in his life, his recent book submission has been rejected and he's dealing that stress.

Director Noam Murro has created a film which is littered with pros and cons. There is some very nice symbolism happening here, most of which is communicated through Lawrence's behavior and body-language. By pay close attention to the way in which he parks his car, or where he decides to sit in a car when he can no longer drive gives us a great deal of information about the character. The movie also has a great message about the fact that very intelligent people are often cut off emotionally from the world, and display very little common sense. Yet, Murro also lets the "slice of life" feel of the film take over at times and the pacing becomes somewhat sluggish. This is quite surprising, as Murro began his career making commercials for products like Nike and Powerade.

While Smart People has its ups and downs, the shining star in the movie is Thomas Haden Church. If you have any inkling to see this movie, see it for his performance. Sporting a moustache which looks as if he's about to have a swordfight in French historical drama, Church drops one deadpan joke after another and steals the show. No, steals the show doesn't quite cover it, as Church appears to be in a completely separate movie, and if I were to watch Smart People again, I would want to see that movie. His lines are hilarious and he proves that he will go to any lengths to get a laugh. When Smart People is referred to as dramatic-comedy, that means that all of the actors are in a drama save for Thomas Haden Church.

Smart People strives for higher education on DVD courtesy of Miramax Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is fairly sharp and clear, as the picture shows a slight amount of grain at times. The image is free from defects from the source material. The colors are good, but the image is slightly dark at times. It's difficult to tell if this is a result of the transfer or an artistic choice. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a very quiet drama, so we don't get much in the way of exciting audio effects here. A few crowd scenes provide some stereo and surround effects, but there's really nothing in the way of subwoofer action.

The Smart People DVD contains only a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Noam Murro and Writer Mark Jude Poirier. While somewhat low-key, this is a good talk, as the two discuss the actors, the characters, and the stories. They acknowledge the fact that this is a small movie and they talk about shooting in Pittsburgh and how Quaid grew in the role. "The Smartest People" (17 minutes) is a making-of featurette which contains comments from Murro, Poirier, the producers and the cast. There's a discussion of the script and the locations, and then we get a view of each character. "Not So Smart" is a 2-minute blooper reel. The DVD contains nine DELETED SCENES which run about 10 minutes. These are mostly small moments which don't add anything to the story. Fortunately, there are a few new jokes from Thomas Haden Church which make them worth watching.

Miramax Home Entertainment has also brought Smart People Blu-ray Disc. The movie has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear here, although we still get some of that grain present on the DVD. However, this transfer does reveal small silver flecks on the image at times. The image is much brighter here, but we still aren't sure how Murro intended for the film to look. (Hopefully one of these transfer is his desired look for the movie.) The colors are very good and the image shows a nice amount of detail. The Disc offers a Linear PCM 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and 6.9 Mbps. Typically, Disney's Linear PCM tracks really pack a punch, but, again, this is a quiet film. The dialogue is always sharp and clear and we get stereo effects which are more detailed than the DVD here.

The extra features on the Blu-ray Disc are identical to those found on the DVD.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long