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If you enjoyed Michael Douglas’ turn as the wayward academic in “Wonder Boys” (2000) and Richard Jenkins’ in Tom McCarthy’s current “The Visitor,” there’s a good chance you’ll also have a good time watching Dennis Quaid as a similar character in “Smart People.” He plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed, burnt-out professor of English Literature at Carnegie Mellon who can’t be bothered to learn his students’ names and has written a book that’s been rejected by publisher after publisher. His only real interest is in securing appointment as the department head, although his position as chair of the search committee puts him at a disadvantage in that regard and he’d obviously skirt most of the job’s responsibilities.

The portrait of Wetherhold as an academic is keen-eyed and highly amusing—his run-ins with students and interaction with fellow faculty are gruesomely funny. But the focus of Mark Jude Poirier’s script is more on his personal life, especially his troubled relationship with his children: James (Ashton Holmes), a student (and aspiring poet) living a university dorm with whom he has little real contact, and Vanessa (Ellen Page), a driven high school senior (and Republican activist) who’s determined to get into the college of her choice and has taken on the duty of keeping house for her father in her mother’s absence.

But Lawrence’s circumstances suddenly change when he suffers a concussion falling from a fence in an ill-advised effort to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car. Precluded from driving for six months by physician Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), he’s forced to accept the offer of his ne’er-do-well adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) to move into the family home and serve as his driver. After a rocky start Vanessa will be infatuated with her happy-go-lucky, free-spirited “uncle.” Meanwhile the professor himself will tentatively try a romance with Hartigan, who turns out to be a former student who’d once had a crush on him.

It’s pretty obvious where all this is headed. Wetherhold will be teased out of his emotional aridity by the young doctor, and Vanessa will be loosened up by Chuck. (The odd man out is James, which proves a pretty thankless role for Holmes.) But though the plot treads fairly predictable ground overall, the particular episodes are for the most part winning, and the dialogue is often snappy.

And the performances are strong, even when the material isn’t. Playing against type, Quaid is a nicely rumpled Wetherhold, managing to convey the guy’s condescension without making him simply nasty. Page does the same sort of overachiever shtick that Reese Witherspoon did in “Election,” with equal success. And Church brings as much goofy charm to Chuck as he did to his character in “Sideways.” If Parker comes off less well, that’s partly due to the fact that Hartigan isn’t as well developed as the other characters—except, of course, for the nearly invisible James, whom Holmes can’t really bring to life. To compensate, there are some excellent bits in smaller parts. And the rather drab, muted look given the film by production designer Patti Podesta and cinematographer Toby Irwin suits the academic setting. The guitar-based score by Nuno Bettencourt seems rather muted, too, but that’s preferable to being overbearing.

Maybe it’s no accident that both “Wonder Boys” and this picture are set in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the Pennsylvania city has a ready supply of quirky professors whose antics make for good theatre. “Smart People” isn’t a work of genius, but it’s clever enough to make you forgive its missteps.



Although it’s based on a short story by Eileen Chang, Ang Lee’s beautiful but remote Chinese-language follow-up to “Brokeback Mountain” is actually an Asian take on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” The picture itself hints at the connection when its heroine goes to a Shanghai cinema and the camera lingers on a poster for “Suspicion” (having to choose that 1941 Hitch film over the real model because the story is set in 1942, four years before “Notorious” was released). But “Lust, Caution” is like a variant of “Notorious” in which the Cary Grant character is reduced to a minor player, the happy ending is jettisoned in favor of something far darker, and—oh, yes—the couple played by Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains engage repeatedly in rough sex, explicitly enough presented to earn the picture an NR-17 rating.

And the “Notorious” connection isn’t the only one to Hitch’s films. The story’s central conceit—that a naïve woman pretends to be someone else in order to seduce a man for ulterior motives—links it not only with “Notorious” but with “Vertigo” (and Alexandre Desplat’s evocative score often recalls Bernard Herrmann’s classic one for that film). And there’s an extended sequence showing how very difficult it is to kill a man that’s very similar in effect to the one in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain.”

Are all these similarities purely accidental? Perhaps, but I think not. Because “Lust, Caution” succeeds not so much as an espionage thriller, nor as a romance, but as an exercise in technique—visually extravagant, swooning, and vaguely over-the-top, but at the same time entrancing and engrossing over its long (157-minute) running-time. It won’t make your pulse race or engage your emotions, but if you’ll surrender to its leisurely pace and combination of restraint and abrupt paroxysms of passion, it will intoxicate your senses.

The picture begins in 1942, in the home of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), security head of the Chinese government that’s collaborating with the occupying Japanese, where his voluble wife (Joan Chen) is entertaining a mahjong party that includes the beautiful Mrs. Mack (Tang Wei), the wife of a Hong Kong businessman. When Mr. Yee stops by the table, he and Mrs. Mack share glances that indicate they’re somehow involved. But it’s soon revealed that she’s also involved with young Kuang Yumin (Wang Leehom), who’s in the resistance.

Cut back to 1938 Hong Kong, where the supposed Mrs. Mak is revealed as college student Wang Jiazhi, who’s enticed into a rebellious, anti-Japanese theatre troupe by Kuang. He persuades the girl to take the Mak disguise so that she can get close enough to Yee to lure the traitor to his death. But the plot fails and Yee escapes the group’s assassination attempt.

Flash ahead to 1941, when after some difficult years Kuang approaches Wang to resume her imposture to seduce Yee again, with the same purpose in mind. This time their relationship turns seriously passionate, and the outwardly stoic Yee seems on the verge of abandoning his customary cautiousness to his desires, when Wang has to choose between going through with her mission or saving the life of a collaborator for whom she’s apparently grown to have some affection (though that’s hardly apparent from what we’ve seen).

This is a fairly simple tale—as you might expect from the fact that it’s derived from a short story—drawn out, many will say unconscionably, to epic length by Lee’s extremely lush, languorous style. And the lack of real emotional connection with the characters will lead others to dismiss the film out of hand (one cared a lot more about the fate of Ingrid Bergman, and even of Rains). But “Lust, Caution” is so beautiful to look at that for some of us at least its sheer sensual pleasure will outweigh its problems. Rodrigo Prieto’s gauzy cinematography sets off Pan Lai’s period production design and Olympic Lau’s art direction elegantly, and the costumes (by Pan) are equally attractive.

So whether Lee’s film will appeal to you depends on whether you’ll prize its refined surface or be turned off by its lack of inner vitality. But fascinated or bored, you won’t be able to deny the level or craftsmanship it displays. And perhaps you’ll see the homage to Hitchcock in it, too.