‘Smart People’ falls short of potential

David Hohwald

Freshman efforts at movie making usually wear their influences on their sleeve, and Noam Murro’s debut film “Smart People” is no exception.

Borrowing liberally from the work of Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale,” as well as traditional movie conventions, Murro attempts to create a poignant film about a widowed college professor and his odd family trying to move on with their lives.

However, Murro falls flat on his face, and the result is a muddled mess of a film that might as well be titled “Boring People.”

The cast of “Smart People” is definitely interesting at first glance.

It includes many well-known actors and actresses, including two Oscar nominees.

Unfortunately, the performances in this film are almost uniformly mediocre, each falling flat due to lack of character development.

Dennis Quaid is brutally bland in the lead role as Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

He sighs his way through the movie and might as well be defined by the clothes he wears because there is little else that he does.

Ellen Page falls flat in Murro’s film. Playing the young Republican super-smart daughter of Quaid, she shows little depth and seems to be more annoyed than anything else.

Thomas Haden Church has a bit more moxie as Quaid’s adopted brother and plays the oddball uncle reasonably well, but he never seems to turn his character into anything more than a set-up role.

Ashton Holmes and Sarah Jessica Parker are the other big names in the film, and both are given little to do aside from a few bits of dialogue.

The fault is really not on the actors and actresses, though, but rather on the poorly constructed plot and script.

The movie itself is only 90 minutes long, but it feels like twice that because of the construction of the three acts of the movie.

Since there is nothing of much substance going on in “Smart People,” it feels like Murro stretched out all three acts, making each feel contrived and boring.

Between bits of needless exposition and odd interludes meant to give the movie depth are a few heart-warming moments, but these are few and far between.

Oddly enough, little time is spent developing the film’s characters.

For all of the time spent on unnecessary actions, Murro spends little time showing the characters going about their daily lives.

Since the movie hinges on this dynamic, it suffers drastically, and this is the principal reason why the characters feel so alien.

When people like Quaid change in “Smart People,” it feels totally forced and much like a light switch going from off to on, as opposed to a gradual evolution.

As for the script, the dialogue in “Smart People” is really hit or miss. The comedic elements only work some of the time, and many of the jokes simply are not funny.

Murro tries to supplement this with a few dashes of male nudity, with little success, and the quirky dialogue has been done better in many other films.

It is hard to gauge Murro’s skill in editing and cinematography, as he does not do either much in the film.

His transitions are not terrible but do not offer much to the story or ease into the subsequent scenes, and visually, the movie is simply OK.

There are no fancy camera tricks, but there are no real botched scenes either.

“Smart People” may seem like a movie with a lot of promise, but this potential is never realized.

The film is hindered by a weak script and little in the way of plot, which subsequently hamstrings some talented actors and actresses.

The result is a bland fare, full of character and plot clichés and not much else. Avoid Murro’s freshman foray into filmmaking.