Movie News & Reviews

Church, Quaid can't carry Smart People

Next on our list of Guys Who Looked Like Dorks 10-15 Years Ago ButTurned Out to Be Really Cool: that galoot from Wings and Nedand Stacey.

Sure, Thomas Haden Church was in plenty of TV and movies between thoseand his hilarious role in Sideways -- a character that, likeChurch himself, looks dimwitted but comes off deceptively sharp -- butif you're in George of the Jungle 2 and you aren't George, Idon't think it's going to leave much of a mark on the culture, nomatter how charming your ape butler may be.

So how come a man so talented was relegated to such third-rate stufffor so long? Pretty obvious if you think about it: Church is asuperhero and all that crime-fighting left him no time for the goodmovies. I'm just conjecturing here, but I'm going to go ahead andguess his modus operandi was to get hired as a henchman, stand aroundwith his brow furrowed until his supervillain boss mistakes him for aruggedly handsome footstool, kicks back, and gives away all his evilplans, at which point Church punches everyone's lights out and twiststhe Death Ray's barrel around so when it goes off it shoots itself.

On second thought, that's definitely what happened. Unfortunately, itwould take a similar act of heroism to make Smart People morethan occasionally funny.

Dennis Quaid is a gruff man, more at home with the literature heteaches at Carnegie Mellon than the people in his life, includingoverachieving daughter Ellen Page and his goofus of a brother Church.Perennially underemployed, Church shows up needing a place to stay,but isn't allowed to move in until an accident leaves Quaid legallyunable to drive and in need of someone to shuttle him around town.

Church and Page start to hit it off: she'll be off to college soon,and he thinks she needs to have a little fun before she continues hergoal-oriented life. As he's busy corrupting her, Quaid, who hasn'treally dated since the death of his wife, starts to see Sarah JessicaParker, the doctor he met when he was hospitalized.

Thing is, though, he's so wrapped up in his own head he has a hardtime letting her into it. Usually the movieland answer tointellectuals and their personal problems is for them to realize howgrossly unimportant the life of the mind is compared to "real" life.And they're completely right to think that way. All life's problemscan be solved by playing Frisbee with your dog in the park, orby smiling back at a baby no matter how trollish and creepy that babymight be.

Smart People doesn't fall into that trap. It takes itscharacters' intellectual pursuits seriously. Always good to see that.As for the rest of their personalities, it doesn't do so hot.

Like when Church disappears midway through -- why? I mean, yes, we'relater told why, but that doesn't mean it makes any sense.Quaid gets dumped on for ignoring son Ashton Holmes, yet the scriptneglects Holmes even worse, only dragging him out whenever it'sconvenient to make a point.

As for Page, her Young Republican, quasi-Objectivist character nevercomes off as more than a fuzzy photocopy of a young Ayn Rand. We knowshe's smart because she keeps calling other people stupid, but as forwhat about her would make Church want to hang out with her, that, too,is a question which must be left to the philosophers.

Without a command of his characters and their problems, director NoamMurro doesn't have a command of his story. Quaid actually has enoughmaterial to give a solid, interesting performance, and Church can'thelp but be funny (though we see so much of his ass it should getthird billing), but around two-thirds of the way through my brain ranup the white flag: subplots stalled, then reappeared without warning;people got upset with each other for no clear reason, then ran off andsulked about it; OK, guys, let's pack it in with a dramaticreconciliation before the goodwill runs out entirely.

Smart People accomplishes that much, at least. Its obvioussympathy for Quaid earns it another cheer. But Quaid's the only onewho really comes to life. As for the others, all the acting talent inthe galaxy doesn't do much good when you're working with charactersthat feel more like approximations than like real people.

Grade: C+