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Tora Bora or Bust

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The middling romantic comedy Smart People, which centers on a hyperintellectual dysfunctional family, is of interest chiefly for the first post-Juno role of Ellen Page. A prominent critic dubbed the actress “frighteningly talented,” and it remains to be seen which side will win out: the talented or the frightening. As the straitlaced Young Republican daughter of a misanthropic professor (Dennis Quaid), she talks much like Juno, in an exaggeratedly blasé monotone with certain words stretched out to convey that she’s thinking. She stands back from her character’s emotions—she irons her lines out with irony. This worked in Hard Candy, where she mocked her pedophile captive with sociological clichés, and in Juno, where the point was to show that however adult the pregnant teen talked, her feelings were a tangle. (It was a point that “It”-girl screenwriter Diablo Cody blunted by giving nearly everyone else the same inflections.) Here it kind of works, but the echoes get in the way. Will she prove talented enough—like, say, Katharine Hepburn—to transcend her mannerisms?

The script by Mark Poirier doesn’t help by pulling Page’s character out of mothballs: the uptight female who needs to be loosened up, in this case by Quaid’s wastrel adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church)—who introduces her to pot and alcohol. The brother also worries that as a member of the Young Republicans, she has “never cheated or stole anything.” (Insert your own Republican joke here.) It’s a good thing that Church’s groggy rhythms are so winning, and that Quaid freshens up the musty alcoholic professor (who seems inspired by Simon Gray’s Butley) with his unquenchably youthful petulance. The movie, directed by Noam Murro, has its bright spots—or, rather, its brightly dark spots, since it’s best at its nastiest. When Quaid falls for a doctor who was once his student (a low-key and appealing Sarah Jessica Parker) and begins to emerge from his stupor, Smart People puts you into one, with everyone wisecracking through tears.

In a vile-movie competition between Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Vadim Perelman’s The Life Before Her Eyes, Haneke’s film would win—but only because he’s working so much harder to be noxious. Perelman, who also directed the punishing House of Sand and Fog, clearly regards himself as a life-affirming humanist: He lingers over bodies of bullet-ridden high-school students to drive home the idea that opening fire on random teenagers is a bad thing. Trapped by a sociopathic student along with her best friend (Eva Amurri) in a school bathroom, spunky 17-year-old Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) is forced to make a terrible choice—whereupon we cut to the anniversary of the tragedy fifteen years later, when the older Diana (Uma Thurman) is an art-history professor and the overprotective mother of a radiant little girl. Perelman moves back and forth between the younger Diana (whom he rather fetishizes) and the increasingly disoriented older one, with breaks for high-resolution shots of flowers, bees, etc., as well as that school-bathroom confrontation, which functions in the narrative like a striptease. If you haven’t caught on to the gimmick after ten minutes, the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” is all over the soundtrack. In between snorting and rolling your eyes, you can pass the time pitying Thurman, who has to emote in a vacuum, and admiring Wood—who is open and unaffected, the anti–Ellen Page.

In The Forbidden Kingdom, a teenage martial-arts maven (Michael Angarano) passes through a portal in time and is trained by Jackie Chan and Jet Li to go up against the Jade Emperor and free the imprisoned imp-sage the Monkey King (also Li). Having marveled at these stars in their prime, I’m too aware of the occasional stunt double and the way the shots end right before what would have been the most thrilling acrobatics. But now I sound like Jade(d) Critic! Once past the clunky prologue, the film is great fun, with a good balance between computer effects and athleticism. The best part is when Chan resurrects his drunken-master fighting style and goes hand-to-hand with the stoic but furious Li. Given their histories, every blow lands like a caress.

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Directed by Morgan Spurlock.
The Weinstein Company. PG-13.

Smart People
Directed by Noam Murro.
Miramax. R.

The Life Before Her Eyes
Directed by Vadim Perelman.
Magnolia. R.

The Forbidden Kingdom
Directed by Rob Minkoff.
Lions Gate. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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