Smart People is probably one of, if not the most depressing romantic comedy in the history of cinema. What’s funny is that spite of its odd mish-mash of depression and comedy, the film’s formula actually works. Whereas films such as Good Will Hunting feature incredibly intelligent people in everyday situations, they tend to flirt with the more “academic” aspects of intelligence and remain realistic yet still somewhat superficial in their themes. Smart People, on the other hand, shows in a remarkably believable way what happens when intelligent folks are so “book smart” that their intelligence gets in the way of their social abilities and “street smarts.”
It’s hard to identify the main character in Smart People, because several characters play such prominent roles. However, in every case, the story hinges on character growth. Dennis Quaid portrays a widower college professor struggling to recover from his wife’s death years ago. A tenured Literature professor at Carnegie Mellon, Quaid despises his coworkers, is rude to students, avoids holding office hours and on the whole is an arrogant jerk. Meanwhile, his education-obsessed 17-year-old daughter, played by Juno’s Ellen Page, has embraced her dad’s arrogance even as she wants nothing more than to move cross-country to Stanford while her depressed brother listlessly attends Carnegie Mellon between trips to the bar. Completing the dank family circle is Quaid’s adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church, who moves in unexpectedly after an accident knocks Quaid unconscious. Church’s character injects an odd sense of fun and reality into a house that desperately needs it, but it’s a sad state of affairs when Church’s freeloading character is the most normal one of the bunch.
When Quaid gets involved with his emergency-room doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) — who also happens to be a former student — Quaid learns to shed his arrogance, but he starts alienating his family in the process. By the end, the whole story wraps up nicely, if not a bit too conveniently, and it becomes clear that every character’s storyline is focused on realizing that intelligence can’t get you through life happily. This is a deep concept for what amounts to a romantic comedy, and the depression-induced situations in the film are odd vehicles for carrying the message. But again, it works — somehow.
Smart People’s AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer has a surprising lack of contrast and suffers from a soft haze the entire length of the film, almost like it’s been upscaled rather than natively encoded in 1080p. On the artistic front, the drab color palette and heavy influence of blue tones serves to show just how much these sad (blue) but smart people are trying to find happiness — but are failing miserably. Outside of that artistic nod, though, the video quality is pretty disappointing.
Much like the video, the audio hasn’t exactly been given the special treatment, with a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD 48kHz/24-bit setup that gets the job done for this cerebral film but isn’t anything to write home about. Considering there’s no action to speak of, the volume imbalance is peculiar, because the film is predominantly filled with dialogue. Sure, people speak at different volume levels in real life, but there are a few instances where characters seem to swallow entire sentences because their voices dip so low. We’re no strangers to adjusting the volume on loud blockbuster-type films, but think pieces like this? Not so much.
The special features pick things up somewhat, and with only four of them, the studio is fortunate that one of them is actually quite good. Called The Smartest People – Interviews with the Filmmakers and Cast (16:34), this is the ideal bonus feature for anyone who studies characters an character development. The brunt of this featurette is broken down by character, with each primary character explored by the actors who play them, then the actors themselves “described” by the director. In some respects this is a feature outlining just how much each actor had to prepare for his or her role, but in light of the intense characters in Smart People, this really is the ideal feature for this movie, and it’s a fantastic piece that lets viewers really get to know each character more in depth.
The Deleted Scenes (9:51) feature is comprised of nine scenes, about two-thirds of which were wisely cut because they simply added to the heap of “this guy’s a jerk” scenes that pervade the film. However, two or three of the scenes actually would have added depth to the characters and explained some relationships a bit better, so it’s surprising to see them gone. Regardless, all of the scenes must have been cut late in the production process, because whereas most Deleted Scenes featurettes are incredibly rough compared to the final film, these scenes look identical to the presumably sweetened final cut.
The Feature-length Commentary by Filmmaker Noam Murro and Writer Mark Jude Poirer poses the standard commentary stuff, nothing too grand, but definitely some nice commentary on the characters and production. Rounding things out is Not So Smart – Bloopers and Outtakes (2:02). This feature includes a lot of laughing and botched lines, but whereas these types of bloopers are almost always boring, the ones for Smart people actually provide a refreshing change of pace from the rest of the film, because it seems like these outtakes provide some of the only laughter in the film. If nothing else, they reinforce just how depressing (not in a bad way) the main film truly is.
Again, “depressing” isn’t a word you’d normally expect to hear when talking about a romantic comedy, but it’s somehow the perfect way to describe Smart People. A sad romantic comedy isn’t something you see every day, and the exploration of intelligence vs. social grace is a topic not often explored. These factors alone make Smart People an interesting film, but it’s definitely geared toward a niche within a niche, and its Blu-ray presentation feels somewhat lazy. Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker do good jobs with their roles, but because those roles and characters are so different, Smart People is definitely more suited as a rental than a must-own film.