Smart People: On screen and on campus

On Friday, the yet-to-be-released film Smart People was shown to journalists and other media outlets at a private screening in New York. The production company, Miramax, invited Carnegie Mellon to the event — and so I boarded a plane to New York City with little direction and a lot of apprehension. True, Friday was only the screening; but on Saturday, I was to meet and interview director Noam Murro, screenwriter Mark Poirier, and actors Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Thomas Haden Church.

Somehow, Smart People does fine in epitomizing different aspects of Carnegie Mellon culture, although this reflection was somewhat unintentional. The setting of the film was originally Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but as Poirier said, filming an indie film in the middle of Washington is kind of, well, impossible.

But the switch to our campus seems to have had a successful effect on the film. “I don’t think [the move to Carnegie Mellon] really changed much,” said Quaid, who plays the film’s protagonist. “Carnegie Mellon changed the script, maybe, itself.”

“When it was in Georgetown, Dennis’ character is regarded to be ... kind of a weary elitist and whenever we were in Pittsburgh, I became quite aware of the class distinction of the kids who go to Pitt and the kids who go to so many other schools, and then the kids who go to [Carnegie Mellon],” Church said, elaborating on the change in location. Church commented that this sort of distinction was similar to that found at Georgetown.

It’s true that some setting markers in the film would seem suspicious to the Carnegie Mellon student — seriously, Doherty Hall would never host a class on Victorian literature, let alone literature of any kind — but Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon give the film an adequate independent film feel.

“I think that visually and thematically, [it] worked as the right place for us,” said Murro, adding that Carnegie Mellon’s unique architecture was an asset to the film.

Admittedly a dark and quirky take on academia, the film is filled with smart people who aren’t so socially and emotionally intelligent: Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, played by Quaid, and his daughter Vanessa, a wonderfully bitter Ellen Page, are the main purveyors of the immense social inability portrayed in the film, while Janet (Parker) and Chuck (Church) can only try to nurture these characters into a brighter reality.

Quaid convincingly plays Lawrence, a depressed widower barely functioning in his everyday life; he is a role model to his high-school daughter, and an annoyance to his collegiate son James. He resents his brother Chuck — referring to him as his “adopted brother” — who comes into Lawrence’s life whenever he needs money, support, or a house to live in. When Lawrence experiences severe head trauma, the movie begins to pick up speed. The damage left by the death of Lawrence’s wife becomes evident, despite the fact that 10 years have passed. Lawrence himself is understandably depressed, but too angsty for a middle-aged man — although Janet is supposed to change all that as the film’s archetypal love interest.

But the thing about this film is that very little happens in it, and so it is very unique — making it, in a way, a superb example of what a small, independent film is supposed to be. And so, while Janet would typically bring about a grand change in Lawrence, she causes a small, more realistic one.

“The whole point, I guess, is that the movement of all of these people are minimal,” Murro said. “There is very little that has happened.”

And that brings a sense of reality into the film, as does the genuine messiness of these people’s lives. “I think that the mother’s death makes them more messy.... They’re just a mess because they don’t know how to channel their grief,” Poirier said. The movie shows Lawrence and Vanessa progressing toward healing their grief through relationships: Lawrence with Janet, and Vanessa with her adopted uncle Chuck.

Because Quaid plays the protagonist, his character’s relationship with Janet is the most important to the film’s flow, but the relationship between Vanessa and her uncle is the most satisfying. The dynamic between the two is really spectacular, and the shining comedy of the film can mostly be attributed to the wit and timing of Church and Page. Both of the actors’ peers celebrated these talents: “[Church is] really quick, and he has a real gift for true improvisation.... He’s extremely fast and it’s very inspiring to try to keep up,” Parker quipped.

The talents of Page, a future star, were also appreciated. “To work with someone like Ellen, right off the bat, in a second, you know you’re working with someone who is bigger than anything,” Murro said. Church, who also gushed about Page, agreed; “I was as absolutely as impressed with her off camera as anything we did in front of the camera,” he said. “She’s just so kind of self-possessed but in a positive way.... I’m amazed and a little bewildered by ... [her] early focus.”

Overall, the film, with its dark tones and well-placed humor, is mostly satisfying. The end leaves something to be desired, but maybe that’s the point of smaller films. What is done well, not even considering that this is Murro’s first feature film, is the representation of intelligent people in a novel, modern way. “I think that all of us smart people, what we do, we shield ourselves with intelligence. The minute we are faced with an emotional issue we don’t want to deal with, we just bring up our defense mechanism, which is probably a brain. And the whole point of [the movie] is it won’t help you,” Murro said.

I revealed to the cast that I, in fact, am a student at Carnegie Mellon. They cooed and wowed, congratulating me.

And Sarah Jessica Parker said, “You must be rather smart.”