Smart People, 15
Charlie Bartlett, 15
After this glut of Smart and Smarter comedies, bring back the stupid people
Sunday 18 May 2008
Ever since Dumb and Dumber was released, Hollywood has been criticised for making so many comedies about stupid people, but it's the comedies about clever people we should be worrying about.
Lately, there's been a glut of films which could be titled "Smart and Smarter". They all feature white, middle-class, quasi-incestuous families. Every family member is assigned his or her own personality dysfunction. The intellectually precocious teenagers dress as if they're adults; the emotionally stunted adults dress in corduroy jackets. One or two characters are petty criminals, and one or two are addicted to whisky or tranquillisers. There's always an embittered academic, and there's always someone who's working on a novel or a book of poetry. And the dialogue is there to show that the characters are well read and articulate, the screenwriters even more so.
If these comedies were all up to the standard of The Squid and the Whale, The Savages, Little Miss Sunshine, or most of Wes Anderson's output, there would be nothing to complain about. But if a film keeps advertising how quirky and intelligent it is, it had better not be grindingly conventional, which is why Smart People is asking for trouble. It stars Dennis Quaid as the Embittered Academic, a paunchy, misanthropic widower who teaches literature in Pittsburgh. His daughter, Ellen Page – the head girl of Smart and Smarter comedies – is the Intellectually Precocious Teenager who campaigns for the Republicans. She idolises her father, so she's indignant when two intruders threaten to break up their unhappy home. One is Thomas Haden Church, Quaid's layabout brother. The other is Sarah Jessica Parker, a doctor who had a crush on Quaid when he was her student.
Between Quaid's scruffy beard, Church's tufty moustache, and Page's 1970s flick, it can seem as if the hair stylist is providing most of the characterisation, but all the actors put in strong, spiky performances, given that they have almost nothing dramatic to say or do. Somehow, they all drift towards enlightenment, but they get only about three lines per scene before an acoustic guitar starts strumming and the dialogue fades out. The entire film is like the montage that pops up in most films when they're taking a breather from the story.
This week's other Smart and Smarter comedy is Charlie Bartlett, which takes Jason Schwartzman's eccentric outsider from Rushmore and mixes in the moneyed self-satisfaction of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Anton Yelchin stars as Charlie, a confident 17-year-old oddball who's expelled from the latest of many exclusive private schools for selling fake IDs to his classmates. His frequently sozzled mother, Hope Davis, doesn't mind. She's glad to have him back at the family mansion, so she can sing along to the Broadway hits he vamps on the Steinway, but eventually she has no choice but to send her precious son to an inner-city state school.
The question is, can a Lord Fauntleroy with a blazer and a briefcase win over his streetwise new peers? And the answer is, yes, he can – all too easily.
Charlie may get bullied on day one, but he immediately confronts the bully, flanked by his chauffeur and his bodyguard, and recruits him in a Ritalin-dealing partnership. He goes on to seduce the sexy yet artily independent daughter of the Embittered Academic headmaster (Robert Downey Jnr) just as speedily. High school misfits aren't what they used to be.
After this aggravating twerp becomes the school's unofficial psychiatrist, doling out advice and prescription drugs in the boys' toilets, it seems as if we're in for a black comedy satirising America's over-medicated therapy culture. But Charlie Bartlett gets sidetracked by its many soapy subplots, and ultimately, like Oscar Wilde, it has nothing to declare but its genius. If only it had some genius to declare.
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