Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church | R | [

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  

]

COMEDY

A person with a Ph.D., this droll comedy makes clear, can be as big a fool as anyone. Take grouchy Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid), a widowed college professor specializing in Victorian literature. Oh, he can lecture endlessly about Charles Dickens, but when it comes to understanding his own emotional needs, he's been in shut-down mode ever since his wife died.

When a bad tumble lands Wetherhold in the emergency room, a doctor (Parker) asks him, "Are you always this contentious, or is it the result of the head trauma?" Soon he and the good doc, his onetime student, are dating, and he is clumsily taking the first steps toward moving on with his life. As Wetherhold shakes off his funk, he gradually comes to see how his years of disengaged neglect have hurt his teenage daughter (Page, doing the Young Republican version of her Juno character), college-age son (Ashton Holmes) and slacker brother (Church).

While some characters—Parker's in particular—feel underdeveloped, and the plot runs low on fuel near the end, Smart People is, well, smart and enjoyable. Quaid, getting just the right shamble in his walk, again shows off his polished comic skills, while Parker is astringently amusing. But it's Page and, especially, Church who have all the best lines and scenes, whacking 'em out of the ballpark every time.

Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira PG-13 | [

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  

]

CRITIC'S CHOICE

DRAMA

As in Smart People (see previous page), The Visitor's hero is an academic who has been sleepwalking through life since his wife died. But this poignant drama by writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) is far more tender, and realistic, than its slicker counterpart. Economics professor Walter Vale (Jenkins), 62, is revivified upon befriending a young illegal-immigrant couple, Tarek (Sleiman) and Zainab (Gurira). In a plot that includes comedy (Vale takes up drumming alongside Tarek in New York City parks), tragedy (Tarek, who's Syrian, faces deportation) and romance (Vale grows close to Tarek's mom, movingly played by Abbass), Visitor takes Vale, and viewers, on a bittersweet journey. Jenkins, a veteran character actor, is gently perfect as a man who comes to understand that life, in happy and sad times, is meant to be lived.

Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans | R | [

bgwhite bgwhite   

]

CRIME

In this lean spring at the multiplex, if a movie can hold your interest for two-thirds of the way, that's not bad. Street Kings—a dark, violent tale of crime and corrupt cops in sunny Los Angeles—does just that before collapsing on itself at the end in a frenzy of overplotting and cynicism. Reeves plays Tom Ludlow, a hard-drinking maverick cop who nails criminals without paying much attention to the niceties of procedure. "It doesn't matter what happens; it's how we write it up," he says. When another cop is gunned down and it looks as if Ludlow may have been involved, he sets out to uncover the real culprit. The answer proves more surprising to him than to viewers. Reeves is effective, though he still speaks in a monotone as flat as a freshly mowed putting green, while Whitaker is silkily disarming as his boss.

• The 21 star, 46, tries his luck on Broadway in Thurgood, about Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

WHAT'S IT LIKE DOING A ONE-MAN SHOW? If I said I wasn't nervous, I'd be lying, but I'm exhilarated to be on the stage. The theater is church for actors, so I'm going to church.

ANY WORRIES ABOUT MESSING UP ONSTAGE? I try to get the mistakes out in rehearsal. I'm blundering through it and looking foolish every day.

ARE YOU A GAMBLER LIKE YOUR 21 CHARACTER? Not at all. [During shooting] I put $50 down on the blackjack table and played three hands. I lost all of it and that was enough for me!

• The former singer, 31, is drumming up buzz as a Syrian djembe player in The Visitor.

YOU GREW UP IN LEBANON. WHAT WAS IT LIKE COMING TO THE U.S.? I [first] moved to Michigan. Beirut is such a happening city, so Dearborn was like a village to me. I loved the drive-in theaters, but after I got my B.S. in computer science to please the family, I couldn't wait to go to New York.

HAD YOU EVER PLAYED THE DRUMS BEFORE THE FILM? I never drummed in my life, but I bought a really nice, expensive djembe, an African drum. I don't touch it because I'm afraid to ruin it! Plus, I think the cops have already come way too often to my house when I was practicing every day [for the film]. Now I have to play it cool. I don't want to be deported!

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL Ryan Gosling (left) gives a performance of astonishing emotional delicacy as a severely shy young man who starts dating a life-size doll. What really gives this quirky comedy its heart, though, is the way his family and small-town neighbors all opt to play along. Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider and Patricia Clarkson costar. (PG-13) | [

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  

]

JUNO A wisecracking pregnant teen (Ellen Page, who knocks our socks off) has it way more together than the grown-ups surrounding her. This ebullient comedy won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. (PG-13) | [

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite  

]

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's dark epic about an oil man (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a towering turn that earned him a Best Actor Oscar) whose greed and need for control end up costing him. (R) | [

bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite bgwhite 

]