Signs of intelligence

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Smart Peo­ple ( M)

Na­tional re­lease

Gone Baby Gone ( MA15+)

Na­tional re­lease

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

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