STUDIO: Miramax/Buena Vista Home Entertainment
MSRP: $29.99
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
• Deleted Scenes
• The Smartest People – Interviews With Filmmakers and Cast
• Not So Smart – Bloopers/Outtakes
• Feature Commentary by filmmaker Noam Murro and Writer Mark Jude Poirier

The Pitch

It’s like The Visitor, just not as funny!

The Humans

Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ashton Holmes

The Nutshell

After the death of his wife, Laurence Weatherhold, an emotionally stunted college professor (Quaid) and his emotionally stunted overachieving young Republican daughter, Vanessa (Page) are rocked to the core by the sudden arrival of Laurence’s emotionally stunted underachieving brother Chuck (Church), and an emotionally stunted former student named Janet (Parker) who has the emotionally stunted hots for him. While Laurence tries to overcome his arrogance, belligerance, and misanthropy to come down to Janet’s level, Chuck tries to get Vanessa to loosen up. Hilarity…or something like that….ensues.

After he’d heard it the 6th time, Frank was determined to walk again just so he could put a boot up the ass of the next person to talk about drinking anybody’s fucking milkshake.

The Lowdown

If the real joke of this film is that writer Mark Jude Poirier really set out to write a romantic comedy for and about high-functioning aspies, then I’m willing to concede defeat and say I’m not qualified to review the film any more than Bill O’Reilly’s qualified to write a biography about Edward R. Murrow. It’s dealing with something I’ll never be able to fully grasp, no matter how much I think I do. That said, all evidence from the film itself and from the bonus features on this disc suggest otherwise, so, what we’re left with is a film that wants to be poignant and endearing, but comes off as pretentious, cold, and disjointed.

Early Still from Necro: The Life of H.R. Giger.
Shown here: A moment of inspiration.

The main problem is exemplified by something Poirier says in the bonus features, something to the effect of “These characters were just running around in my head for years, and they finally had a way out through this story.” It shows. There’s at least three different movies going on in this one film, and all three feel splintered and truncated as hell. It doesn’t help that the film doesn’t seem terribly concerned in making its audience give a crap about any of them, despite the fact that there’s an unspoken tragedy at the heart of it, namely the death of Laurence’s wife. The film seems so concerned with just inserting these characters into disconnected situations over the course of a year and watching them interact that it forgets to actually remind the audience why we would ever want to in the first place. And that’s a big screw up for a film that deals with very broken, stilted characters who don’t really know how to interact outside of their family unit. Occasionally, the film hits the mark– there’s a dinner scene at Christmas that actually gave me false hope the film was going to go somewhere great from here – but most of the time, the film makes no apologies for each of its characters being unlikable, unrelatable, and generally bastards.

The actors at least try harder than the script does. Quaid continues to swap career trajectories with Harrison Ford, doing great, understated work playing a guy who could very easily be related to Jeff Daniels’ character from Squid and the Whale, the only difference being that Laurence’s vulnerabilities are behind his every movement in this film, and it would be much more sad and genuinely pathetic if the script didn’t keep trying to paint him as Oscar the Grouch with an Ph.D. Ellen Page is solid as usual. While the 16-year-old-who-acts - like-she’s-40 bit that’s fast becoming her bread and butter is also fast becoming
one of those character cliches that drives my eyes rolling to the back of my brain, Page is just so good at making dialogue come to life that the awkwardness of some of the scenes the film places her doesn’t even register. She’s damn near the anchor of this movie. And for what it’s worth on the “When’s she gonna play something different” front, this was filmed pre-Juno.

Gel pens to write 26 alternate captions in a notebook: $2.50
Turkey sandwich eaten during process: $6
Bottle of Advil for stress headache: $3.15.
Coming up with a caption that keeps the writer from spending eternity in Hell: Priceless.

I could accuse Thomas Haden Church of a one-note performance, playing Laurence’s freewheeling brother in a state of perpetual hangover, spitting his lines like he’s trying to get the taste of crotch out of his mouth with them, but again, it’s the script that fails him. Our introduction to the character has him taking pictures of his junk on a copier. For no apparent reason, other than it was supposedly to be randomly funny. The guy we see through the rest of the film is not nearly this much of a scumbag, and no, the fact that he tries to get his niece to relax by smoking pot with her and taking her out for drinks doesn’t count. He’s the heart of the film, and yet he’s used more often than not for comedy relief, which is such the disservice. The performance itself, in retrospect, has Church trying so very hard to convey all the loneliness and sense of failure that the movie, for reasons beyond me, refuses to elaborate on, and the fact that he succeeds with it quite a bit toward the end is a miracle.

There’s not a whole lot to say about Sarah Jessica Parker or Ashton Holmes. They’ve both got thankless roles here, with Parker playing the same romantic comedy love interest with excess baggage shtick she’s been playing this entire decade, and Holmes, who impressed the hell out of me in A History Of Violence, has anything interesting about his character shifted to the wayside. There’s a dramatic purpose behind this, of course: He plays Laurence’s estranged son, James, and besides writing crap emo poetry, he is actually a smart, well-adjusted young man, and wants nothing to do with his stone cold family, so we spend very little time with him other than to set up that Laurence doesn’t care. But this is the other crucial problem with the film itself: we only get scraps of motivation for anyone’s actions. We don’t see why Janet breaks up with Laurence, what he was like with his wife, what Vanessa was like before her mother’s death, where Chuck gets the money to start a weight loss business, any of his and James’ conversations leading Chuck moving in to his dorm at college…you know, anything that could possibly comprise a decent dramatic comedy. We’re left with a bunch of loose punchlines, character threads, and dialogue that go nowhere, and no jokes. This does not a movie make, and it feels like a clear case where the need to create very specific characters close to the writer’s heart undercuts the filmic need to make anything entertaining or intriguing happen to them. To put it kindly, the movie’s boring as shit.

20 seconds after he saw the knife,  the first and only negative Sideways review was silenced forever.

The Package

The commentary from director Noam Murro (who sounds rather pleasantly like an Israeli William Hurt) and Mark Poirier is pretty sparse. Lots of dead space, but Murro is far more vocal than Poirier, and if anything, Murro sounds like he has more of a grasp on the undercurrents in Poirier’s script than he does. The “Smartest People” EPK featurette reinforces this, as just about everyone else seems to be trying to inject these people, these characters with a heart that just isn’t supported in the script. Still, they’re ever so slightly more candid than your average press kit interviews, and that’s a plus.

The deleted scenes are fairly standard, and the blooper reel’s fun. The one moment of greatness they have in common, however, is a scene in a bar with Thomas Haden Church hitting on a waitress. Two of the best lines in the entire package are in that scene, one scripted (“So, what are you doing tonight?” “Fucking my boyfriend.”) one unscripted (“What do you do sell?” “I’m a fighter pilot. I sell death.”). It’s not much, but the film doesn’t warrant much more.

5.5 out of 10