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Arts & Culture

Smart People, Smart Movies?

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Widowed, wallowing dads are at the center of two smaller films that have made their way to DVD this spring and summer.  In "Smart People," Dennis Quaid packs on the pounds and slouches his way to a new lease on life, and in "Dan in Real Life," funnyman Steve Carell finds company with Juliette Binoche.

"Smart People" is advertised on the box as “From the Producer of 'Sideways,'” and though it’s not as broadly funny as that film, it has its moments of gentle humor.  Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, a Carnegie Mellon professor and struggling writer who’s still mourning the loss of his wife years after her passing.  He doesn’t seem to recognize his college-age son is a burgeoning writer himself, and his teenage daughter has taken over the “mom” role in the house, and is in training to follow in Dad’s elitist footsteps.  A fall leaves Lawrence unable to drive, so he begrudgingly accepts the help of his adopted brother (Thomas Hayden Church, more mannered here than in "Sideways," but still a schlub).

Mostly, the misanthropic Lawrence grumpily barks at people and doesn’t even bother to learn the names of his students.  When he finally goes out on a date with a long ago former student that’s now his ER doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), he dominates the conversation for forty-five minutes before she bolts.

Even though "Smart People" follows a formula that inevitably ends with a kinder gentler protagonist, it’s tough to figure out when the turning point is going to happen.  It mostly chugs along, happy to observe the quirks of the Wetherhold household.  A subplot involving Lawrence’s brother getting his niece Vanessa (a pre-"Juno" Ellen Page) to loosen up is handled well.  Page has an undeniable charm, though a few more roles as a mega-smart teen will typecast her forever.

Lawrence emerges from his self-centered world to realize that other people exist, and the film ends on a happy note.  If you think you’ve seen this story before, you probably have.  It’s a popular plot device, one that was explored last fall in "Dan in Real Life."

Steve Carell plays newspaper columnist Dan Burns. But whereas Lawrence Wetherhold looks with contempt on others, Dan spends his days doting over his young daughters and dispensing cheerful family advice in a local newspaper.  One Friday, Dan takes the clan out of town for an extended family reunion.  It turns out that Dan is a part of one of those movie families that’s so perfect, and so smart, and so witty and talented, that every conversation is unencumbered by awkward pauses.  Everyone is so precious that they even have one of those interminable family talent shows with a makeshift stage and curtain.  Never have I seen such annoying familial perfection since the Brady Bunch!  So it’s a welcome relief -- at first -- when Dan breaks the routine by falling for his brother’s new girlfriend, Marie (Juliette Binoche), who is of course all wrong for the brother but is so obviously perfect for Dan.

Carell plays it soft at first, but then Dan becomes increasingly frustrated, and I became more and more uncomfortable as Dan first lashes out at his family, then at Marie, even going as far as hooking up with a young crush (Emily Blunt) to try and make her jealous.  It’s meant to be funny, but it all seemed kind of petty, childish, and sad to me, and so it’s a little unbelievable when Marie and Dan finally get together.

Both "Smart People" and "Dan in Real Life" are nearly identical in their special DVD feature selection.  Each includes a “making of” featurette, and numerous deleted scenes.  I appreciated the accompanying director’s commentary that explains the cuts.  But when will someone finally realize that bloopers just aren’t funny unless they’re from a 1970s Burt Reynolds movie?

Both of these movies are two sides of the same coin, but "Dan in Real Life" is finally sunk by its main character’s hidden mean streak, while "Smart People" is redeemed by letting its hero start off that way and gradually get his “nice” on.