Apr 18, 2008

Smart People

Smart People uses one of the fundamental strategies of indie filmmaking, the witty, dialogue-driven comedy. These scripts are cheap to make and "writerly." Ironically the film is anything but well-written. It supports what is perhaps the greatest of all myths about the writer, as the person who provides the dialogue. Real writers know that the game is won or lost in the structure, which is the development of the character through the plot.

Make no mistake. There is some witty dialogue in this film. But because the script lacks character and plot, the dialogue comes across as written lines performed by actors. Let's consider the characters first. The film crosscuts among four important characters. That's already a risky strategy for a short feature like this one, because you simply don't have time for much character definition when you divide 90 minutes by 4. But the problems here go much deeper.

Smart People is first of all a love story between Dennis Quaid's Lawrence and Sarah Jessica Parker's Janet. If Lawrence were essentially a good guy with a few flaws, you wouldn't have to go too deeply into why smart doctor Janet would want to go out with him. But given that Lawrence is a pompous, self-absorbed jerk, you had better get into why in great detail. Not here. Janet is completely opaque, and her only explanation for wanting to be with this guy is that she had a crush on him when she was his student. But he was a jerk then as well.

Ellen Page plays the same overly intellectual, enunciate-every-word-slowly girl she played in Juno. But this time she is also essentially married to her dad, and has a crush on her disgusting, much older uncle even though, as a young Republican, she should know better. Fourth in this pantheon of supposedly smart people is Chuck, played by Thomas Haden Church, whose zen-like, witty one-liners indicate he is the smartest one of all, but inexplicably is no more than a homeless man at the age of 50.

You can't fall back on the notion that smart people screw up relationships just as much as anyone else. You have to provide motive. Because fiction is all about making the characters clear to the audience, even though they are not clear about themselves. Characters don't have to be likeable in a story, but they must at least be understandable. Otherwise they don't seem like real people and the audience doesn't care what happens to them.

Without a strong character foundation, the film's plot has nowhere to go. The writer tries the old indie trick of having lots of really short scenes, so it looks like real life, only wittier. But instead the plot comes across as episodic and contrived, with the mechanics of the writer's struggle becoming increasingly obvious. Somehow everyone ends up where they should be, but I have no idea how.

In the Comedy Class I talk about how important it is to start with the comic structure, not the one-liners. There are eight major sub-structures of comedy, and each plays out a very different set of story beats. If you start with the comic structure that is right for your story, you can twist the beats to make them original and hang the one-liners on a structure that make them even funnier.

If, on the other hand, you start with the one-liners, you end up with a structural mess and get a film that stops being funny after the first ten minutes. It's your choice.