Life lessons for the intellegentsia

There is a certain thing that happens occasionally in movies that really bothers me. It’s when the title of the film is spoken within it exactly once, usually at some pivotal moment. If you’ve never noticed this before, you’ll be annoyed now that I’ve pointed it out, I guarantee. I recall it happening in the could-have-been-much-better horror film Red Eye, and groaning simultaneously with the person next to me. I always cringe at the end of the otherwise delightful comedy While You Were Sleeping (which I’ve defended as underrated many times) when this phrase is used as the closing line. Now, once in a while this sort of thing can work. It’s quite effective when we see the words “28 days later…” come across the screen to introduce an image of desolate London. And you should worry that you’re a Cylon if you’re not moved by the lovely lyricism of Robert Redford’s narration in a certain film as he tells us that “eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” But, for the most part, this little temptation of writing just comes off as trying too hard to be clever, or as over-emphasizing the movie’s theme, in case we didn’t catch it. In a serious film, it comes off too much as a wink to the audience and feels too close to breaking the fourth wall.

There are two reasons I’m bringing this up. First, as you might have guessed by now, I just saw a movie in which this type of moment occurs, and it was not a moment I approved of. Second, I’m trying to write a review of said movie, and I’m not coming up with too much to say. I can go on and on about movies that I love, and really go on and on about movies that I hate, but if a movie is just okay…it’s hard to talk about without boring myself. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that waymost of the reviews I’ve read of Smart People have either seemed unusually short for that reviewer, or have way too much filler detailing various plot points. It’s the sort of movie that wasn’t particularly good, but that you don’t really want to say anything concretely negative about. My feeling for that moment when a character pointedly says “we’re smart people” sort of sums up how I feel about the movie as a whole. It’s not that the movie’s bad, it’s just that it’s full of moments that could have been better, and subtler than they ended up.

The main reason I would recommend this movie even though the script frustrated me is for the cast. Dennis Quaid slips fully into his role as a bitter professor still mourning his long-dead wife, Ellen Page is enjoyable as his uptight daughter, and Sarah Jessica Parker, who I love in non-Carrie Bradshaw roles, seems particularly at ease as the gently sexy doctor who becomes the professor’s love interest. The real gem in the group is Thomas Hayden Church as Quaid’s scruffy adopted brother, the sort who’s never really gotten his life together but makes up for it by being so well-meaning. All of the actors play greatly off of one another, though they can’t manage to elevate the film to anything really special. The movie ends up playing out as if someone mashed up Wonder Boys and Sidewaystwo excellent filmsand then squeezed out 90% of the sense of mirth that make those films a joy to watch even when they’re dealing with themes like depression, loneliness, and creative desperation. In the end, as the person I watched this with said, we’re not mad at the movie…we just don’t feel excited about it either.


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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