12 April 2008
Smart People, the debut feature from director Noam Murro and screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier, is filled with intelligent, urbane characters. They're smart all right but, with one exception, not particularly interesting or likable. Though not a bad film, Smart People is not as clever and sophisticated as it thinks it is.
Dennis Quaid lets his tousled hair and beard do most of his acting as Carnegie Mellon University literature professor Lawrence Wetherhold. He's a miserable, middle-aged curmudgeon whose lectures impress no one more than himself. Learning his students' names is too much trouble for a man of his intellect; instead, he passes out name tags on the first day of class. His arrogance likely extends to his writing, which would explain why his book has been rejected by so many publishers.
A fall, which comes as Lawrence is climbing a fence to reach his impounded car, and the ensuing seizure land him in the emergency room, where he's treated by a former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). Some of her old schoolgirl crush remains. She still has an essay he gave her a C on when she was a freshman. Lawrence, a widower, soon finds himself on what we surmise is his first date since his wife's death several years ago.
Due to his seizure, a doctor orders Lawrence not to drive for the next six months. Enter Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), his adopted brother. Chuck moves in and serves as Lawrence's chauffeur.
Church is the only person who seems to have any fun in this movie. On the surface, Chuck reminds us of Jack from Sideways. But Chuck, even with his personal life in disarray, proves to be far more mature and responsible than Jack could ever hope to be. Lawrence might call Chuck a toddler and mean it, but that is only one aspect of his personality. Eventually, even Lawrence sees his worth. Chuck is a smart guy, too; he just doesn't feel the need to flaunt it like others in his family.
Chuck makes quite an impression on Vanessa (Ellen Page), Lawrence's ambitious, very serious daughter. Page doesn't exactly stretch herself as an actress. She's Juno if Juno joined the Young Republicans instead of listening to Mott the Hoople and watching Dario Argento movies. With her mother gone, Vanessa is one part daughter, one part housewife. Visiting her father in the hospital is an annoyance because it takes time away from her studies for the SATs. She is "in jeopardy of becoming a 17-year-old robot," Chuck tells Lawrence. Chuck's solution? Introduce her to marijuana and get her drunk. Then Vanessa makes a bold move that translates to discomfort for everyone. It essentially is a role reversal from a scenario in Juno, with the added complication of the familial relationship.
The romance of Lawrence and "the physician," as a resentful Vanessa refers to her, travels a rocky road. This could be because Lawrence is, in Janet's words, a "pompous windbag." No disagreements here. So why should I care about him?
(Rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality. 95 minutes)