Signs of intelligence
Smart People ( M)
Gone Baby Gone ( MA15+)
LIKE many Hollywood directors, Noam Murro started out making television commercials. Smart People is his first feature and it’s a safe bet that none of the characters would be likely to watch TV commercials, let alone make them. As the title says, these are smart people. Not just streetsmart, but rarefied, intellectual- academic smart. And don’t they know it.
Lawrence Wetherhold ( Dennis Quaid) lectures on English literature at a Pittsburgh university. He’s a grieving widower, an authority on the Victorian novel (‘‘ How many times can you read Bleak House ?’’) and the author of a magnum opus that his publishers have rejected, adding to his mood of mild but persistent disgruntlement.
His family, fed up with his surly outbursts and self- pitying tantrums, is losing patience. His son James ( Ashton Holmes), who has just had a poem accepted by The New Yorker , isn’t speaking to him; his daughter Vanessa ( Ellen Page), who has won an entry scholarship to Stanford University, resents his bullying presence. Vanessa is the sort of person whose disputes with her father turn on such questions as whether one should say ‘‘ I prefer language to be precise’’ or ‘‘ I prefer precise language’’. This will immediately endear her to pedants, especially those of us with warm memories of Page as the pregnant teenage daughter in Juno .
Being smart or even brilliant is, of course, no guarantee that one will behave sensibly, and Lawrence is more than usually prone to erratic behaviour. One night, scaling a fence at the university to recover his impounded car, he lands heavily on his back and finishes up in hospital under the tender observation of Dr Janet Hartigan ( Sarah Jessica Parker), one of his former students. Janet, still harbouring a crush on her old prof, recognises the poor guy’s deep- seated unhappiness and tries to help him. One thing leads to another.
But bigger disruptions are in store for Lawrence, including the unexpected arrival of his wastrel brother Chuck ( Thomas Haden Church), a practised sponger and ne’er- do- well whose life is an even bigger mess than his brother’s.
Chuck moves in with the family and offers his services as a chauffeur. And since Lawrence is disqualified from driving because of his injury, he reluctantly agrees to let Chuck drive him around. Suddenly Smart People has the makings of a Driving Mr Grumpy: opposites brought together in a state of mutual dependency to sort out each other’s troubles.
But of course it isn’t so simple. This is a smart screenplay ( by novelist Mark Poirier) in which obvious outcomes are avoided. And since the gay, feckless Chuck is the only character without intellectual pretensions, he is, by definition, the most level- headed and engaging. ( All right, some things are predictable, but this is a Hollywood movie.) It’s a charming film — its morose moods give an added dimension to the fun — and the cast couldn’t be better. For all his dark- jowled, black- bearded irascibility, Quaid somehow retains our sympathy, and his gradual mellowing under Janet’s influence is lovely to behold.
Church, so good in Alexander Payne’s Sideways , manages to look like a carefree version of his brother. He gives the film its heart and the story its credibility: no easy task.
And these days, of course, we’re all fans of Parker. She was the best thing in Failure to Launch and The Family Stone : neither film was much good, but both were much better for her presence. There’s something unfathomably sexy in that gaunt, oddly severe face and its calm, disapproving gaze. Her intimate scenes with Quaid, redolent of truth, tenderness and an overriding anxiety, are beautifully done. Altogether this is a polished and satisfying film and romantic misanthropes will relish it. GONE Baby Gone , the first feature directed by Ben Affleck, is gripping and deeply harrowing, its dire moods relieved by an odd, restless beauty. Affleck came to prominence with Good Will Hunting , which he co- wrote with Matt Damon. And Gone Baby Gone is another screenwriting collaboration: an adaptation ( with Aaron Stockard) of Dennis Lehane’s novel about the search for a missing child in the mean streets of Boston.
Its sinuous, unsettling and constantly shifting narrative prompts all sorts of recollections. I thought of Mystic River , also based on a Lehane novel, and another story about abused children. I thought of that slick police thriller Along Came a Spider , in which Morgan Freeman played a federal agent investigating a child’s kidnapping. Looking wiser and even more ravaged by life’s disappointments, Freeman turns up in Gone Baby Gone as Boston’s police chief.
Then there’s Affleck’s brother Casey, who plays a private detective, Patrick Kenzie, hired to assist the police in tracing the girl. On the strength of his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and of his work in Gone Baby Gone , Casey must be rated an even better actor than Ben: the perfect embodiment of hardened innocence, with a wonderfully touching way of looking frightened and belligerent at the same time. His opening voice- over, though much of it is delivered in a barely comprehensible drawl, captures perfectly the plaintive strangeness and sadness of the story, with all its anguish and power.
The novel was one of several by Lehane about the exploits of Kenzie and his private eye partner Angie Genarro ( Michelle Monaghan) in the working- class Boston district of Dorchester, whose dark heart of drug- dealing and racial suspicion is faithfully caught in Affleck’s film.
Amanda, the lost child, is glimpsed in an early scene before she disappears in broad daylight from under her mother’s eye ( or so it seems). The detective assigned to the case ( Ed Harris) has no clue as to what happened. In desperation, Amanda’s aunt and uncle plead with Patrick and Angie to take the case and seek help from the sort of people — junkies, criminals, pimps, deadbeats — who normally steer clear of the police.
Each of the characters has a murky, pathetic side. The girl’s mother ( Amy Ryan) is a drug addict. Harris’s detective is not above planting evidence and Freeman’s police chief, having lost a child in tragic circumstances, is more emotionally involved in Amanda’s disappearance than he should be.
When a deal is struck with a drug dealer to exchange the child for a cache of illicit money, things go horribly astray. But Patrick and Angie stick doggedly to their task, uncovering ever more alarming layers of depravity and corruption.
This is one of those rare films that offers an unflinching portrayal of American urban low life in all its spiritual poverty and material deprivation. In that respect alone, comparisons with Taxi Driver are not too fanciful. The minor characters — ugly, obese, deformed — are like members of some hellish chorus, and we hardly need the barrage of statistics about child abuse and abduction ( provided in the studio production notes) to reinforce the film’s message.
The film works well as a thriller — up to a point as a whodunit — and sometimes it seems that the requirements of a suspenseful entertainment matter more to the filmmakers than the gravity of their subject. It’s hard to have it both ways. There are many shocking twists in Gone Baby Gone, a few too many, in fact. And in the final scenes, moving as they are, it’s hard not to feel that our emotions are being manipulated in the interests of a good ending. This is a film about the worst kind of pain and vilest human behaviour. Somehow I wish I hadn’t liked it so much.
Unfathomably sexy: Sarah Jessica Parker shines in Smart People