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Sundance Review: ‘Smart People’ is Vivacious and Hilarious, But Also Very ‘Smart’

Great script, heartwarming story, great ensemble cast, Ellen Page… Hmm, this sounds familiar.
By  · Published on April 11th, 2008

[Editor’s Note: This is my review of Smart People that was written during the Sundance Film Festival in January. But, since the film just hit theaters today, I thought I would republish it, just to refresh your memories — and because the film rocks, as you will read below.]

Do you have a pen? I need you to take a moment and write down a name. The name is Mark Poirier. He is an up and coming screenwriter a few projects in development, including 2008’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship and 2009’s Bong Hits for Jesus — and the guy’s writing is absolutely brilliant. For those of you still locked into 2007 at the movies, it is Diablo Cody brilliant. Smart, funny and full of life. Those are characteristics that may or may not describe his future projects, but they certainly describe the project that just premiered here at Sundance.

Poirier penned Smart People, one of the early beautiful surprises of this year’s fest. It stars Dennis Quaid as Lawrence, a jaded, down-and-out Carnegie Melon professor who is, to say the least, the world’s most pompous asshole. He is self absorbed, condescending and for the most part just completely disheveled. Years after the death of his wife, he is left with his witty, snarky Young Republican daughter (Ellen Page, Juno), his closed off yet brilliant poet of a son (Ashton Holmes, Peaceful Warrior) and his lazy, freeloading adopted brother (Thomas Hayden Church, Sideways). When an act of pomposity lands Lawrence in the hospital, he meets a former student turned sexy doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City) and begins his journey toward being able to fit into society with all of the dumb people as well.

As I said in the beginning, keep an eye on this Poirier guy. His script for Smart People is the most intelligent and fresh script of the entire festival so far. It is so reminiscent of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine that it is almost painful. Of course, it helps that Ellen Page brings her soon to be trademarked brilliance to her role as Lawrence’s uptight, overly responsible daughter Vanessa. She gives her character a strong outer shell, covering her innocence with strong wit and sarcasm. Think Juno McGuff, if she were a card-carrying Republican.

Page represents half of the best part of this movie. The other half is Thomas Hayden Church, whose Chuck develops a very unlikely relationship with young Vanessa. He is able to break through her icy outer layer and get her to open up a bit, only to send all the wrong signals and just continue to confuse her already dysfunctional 17 year old existence.

It is sad in a way, that the relationship between the silly, endearing troublemaker Chuck and the future “Bushie” Vanessa overshadows the story of Lawrence and his passage from (as his brother calls it in the film) being “socially retarded” to possibly finding love, but it absolutely does. Hayden Church has not been this great since Sideways. Akin to his role in that film, he finds ways to be outlandish and silly while being immensely endearing. He also finds a way to show off his bare ass a few times — which isn’t my cup of tea, but it does provide for good comedy.

Overall, the film is good comedy, indeed. It is hysterical at times, but shows incredible heart all the way through. It sports and excellent cast that is directed very handily by first time feature-maker Noam Murro. Murro was able to take Poirier’s brilliantly crafted story about life’s most unlikely relationships and turn it into something altogether arresting. This is a film that could play well with all walks of life, from the movie geek that can appreciate the smart dialogue and well-articulated characters to the average moviegoer that can easily fall in love with a heartfelt tale about a dysfunctional family. Seeing it, in an effort to be as cliche as possible, would make us all “Smart People”.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)