Snooty comedy about college-town family fails to play to its strengths
Savvy moviegoers know that independent films released in the spring are too late for one award season and too early for the next. Most of the indies range from not-so-good (e.g., "Sleepwalking") to not-so-bad ("Snow Angels").
"Smart People" is somewhere in between. It’s a comedy about a widowed college professor and the people in his dysfunctional life. With humor that straddles smart-ass and smart-asinine, it makes the similarly set "Wonder Boys" quite weighty by comparison.
Dennis Quaid acts like he wants to be the next Jack Nicholson: He may be one day, but he’s not there yet. We know his character, Lawrence Wetherhold is an asshole because the first shot shows him parking in the middle of two reserved spaces. In the next scene, he makes his students wear name tags so he doesn’t have to learn their names.
Lawrence blows off his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a lovable slacker who only comes around when he needs a handout disguised as a loan.
At home, Lawrence pays little more attention to his children, bickering siblings Vanessa (Ellen Page) and Jim (Ashton Holmes), than he does his students. Jim, a budding poet, lives in a dorm at Carnegie-Mellon, where his father teaches. Vanessa, a Young Republican, has a sharp legal mind.
On the eve of Vanessa’s SATs, Lawrence has an accident and winds up in the ER where the doctor is his former student, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker).
Because he had a mild, trauma-induced seizure, Lawrence isn’t allowed to drive for six months. His insurance won’t pay for a chauffeur, so Chuck moves into the house and starts corrupting too-serious Vanessa into having fun.
Learning from a colleague that Janet had a "schoolgirl crush" on him, Lawrence decides he may have mourned his wife long enough. He asks Janet out, but after 45 minutes of his self-centered pomposity, she concludes it was a bad idea.
He disagrees and starts pursuing her. Among the many incredible aspects of the story is that this intelligent woman is dumb enough to think he can change. What’s more incredible, the filmmakers expect us to believe he can.
About every other line of Poirier’s frequently witty dialogue is a punch line, the chasm between Lawrence and the people in his life being sar-chasm. The ratio is even higher for Vanessa, as the character feeds off of Page’s "Juno" popularity. The actress, a bit more glamorized, is delightful again. But Vanessa is supposed to be a fundamentally unhappy person — and Page never conveys that aspect for a second.
Lawrence has written a book, which has been universally rejected. But as his luck begins to change, Penguin decides to buy it.
To make it more commercial, they subject it to a thorough editing, rendering it almost unrecognizable. And Lawrence is so relieved to get it published he doesn’t object. One suspects "Smart People" went through a similar process, judging from gaps in the narrative caused by a tendency to jump to the next joke as quickly as possible.
There are so many gay references by and about Chuck that he practically has to come out as heterosexual — and even then his story about a "girlfriend" isn’t true. Later he tells his brother they’re "the Wetherhold bachelors: middle-aged, can’t get along with women; should be gay." If Lawrence ever went by a diminutive nickname we could pronounce them Chuck and Larry.
Although I usually decry product placement, a reference to an anti-depressant is one of the funniest things in the movie, right up there with Janet reminding her former professor, "You said my paper was sophomoric. I was a freshman."
The smart people in "Smart People" are academics. Only Chuck has a version of street smarts. There’s some high-sounding literary twaddle but the movie is really pitched at a middlebrow crowd, including an album’s worth of soft-rock songs painfully shoehorned onto the soundtrack.
Considering the compromises made to enhance the film’s box-office chances, it’s amazing Miramax accepted an R rating (mostly for teen drug and alcohol use), cutting out a large segment of Page’s "Juno" fan base when she’s the best thing "Smart People" has going for it. That wasn’t smart.
Director: Noam Murro
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page
Opens: April 11, at the Angelika Dallas.
1 hr. 35 min.
On Thursday, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents a lecture about those eccentric East Hampton socialites, The Beales, and the creators of the famous 1976 documentary, "Grey Gardens." Before the screening, Dr. Robert Jack Anderson’s lecture will offer an overview of the Maysles Brothers’ documentary career including clips from "Gimme Shelter" and "Salesman."
— Daniel A. Kusner
Modern Art Museum, 3200 Darnell St. Fort Worth. April 17; lecture at 6 p.m., screening at 6:40 p.m. Free. 817-738-9215.