In Smart People, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a literature professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who is hopelessly unconcerned with the people around him. Crippled by grief over the death of his wife several years earlier, he lives with his elbows out, avoiding meaningful interaction with students, fellow teachers, and his two teenage children.
The college-aged son, James (Ashton Holmes), gets little screen time and serves largely as a sort of prop to illustrate how Lawrence's children have responded differently to his curmudgeonly behavior. James is all secrecy and anger, whereas 17-year old Vanessa pulls out the stops to earn her father's affection. Ellen Page plays Vanessa like an angst-ridden version of Alex P. Keaton—a member of the Young Republicans who wears turtlenecks and sleeps in front of a wall full of blue ribbons.
Smart People presents the first post-Juno opportunity for audiences to see the Oscar-nominated Page on the big screen. And while she plays yet another smart-alecky teenager, her turn here as the tightly wound daughter of Quaid's misanthropic professor suggests that 1) she is no flash in the pan and 2) she has a penchant for spotting and signing on to play complex roles. She's by far the most interesting character in Smart People.
But this is her father's story. When his bull-headed behavior lands him in the hospital, he reconnects with a former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), now the head of the emergency room. Their halting romance serves as the catalyst for a kind of reawakening for Lawrence, but it's also a head scratcher. We're given few hints on which to build a back story for the good doctor—she had a schoolgirl crush on the professor and she's left a hospital full of crushed men in her stiletto-clad wake. (That this head of the ER spends her long shifts atop Manolo Blahnik-like heels is a tad absurd. Perhaps it's something of a nod to Parker's popular alter ego Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.) But it's entirely unclear why, when the surly professor shows back up in her life, she's willing to take a chance on him.
For his part, Lawrence seems almost blank, like a grumpy sleepwalker who noddingly accepts the common perception that he's a jerk. It is true that Lawrence is a jerk, but he seems too pathetic to engender the kind of real frustration his students and colleagues show. He moves through the world reaping the negative energy that his brusque demeanor sows, and then uses those experiences to further entrench his misanthropic outlook. He's like one big grumpy self-fulfilling prophecy.
Just before Janet's entrance into his life, Lawrence's down-but-not-out brother shows up. Played by Thomas Haden Church, Chuck provides the first real spark of life among all these smart people. He sets out to loosen up Vanessa, and succeeds—perhaps too much, given that she sets her romantic sights on him. ("But you were adopted!" she tells her uncle.) This might sound like a tawdry turn, but it's handled with a lot of grace by the screenwriter and reveals both the void in the seemingly self-sufficient wunderkind and the maturity in the seemingly irresponsible mooch. Lawrence may be the brains of this film, but Chuck is the heart.
As the tagline of the movie says, "Sometimes smart people have the most to learn." And indeed, the premise of a movie grappling with the relational lives of cerebral people has a lot of potential to result in the best sort of comedy, full of witty dialogue, poignant observations, and dysfunction.
There are a number of laughs in Smart People, but the story is too disjointed and ultimately underwhelming. Lawrence, known as a tough grader, might give it at a C. I'm feeing a bit more generous. So, I'm giving it a solid B-.Discussion starters
- At one point Vanessa seems to say that smart people should leave acts of compassion and/or empathy to those who are less intelligent. What do you think motivates her to think this way? How would you respond to that notion?
- What do you think spurred Lawrence to make changes in his life by the end of the movie? What epiphany did he have?
- Why do you think Janet was attracted to Lawrence? Why do you think Vanessa pursued Chuck? What did each of these women want from each of these men?
- What do you think it means to be "smart"? Who, if anyone, in this movie did you think was smart? Why?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Smart People is rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexuality. There is no nudity, but a few shots involve lingerie and a bare bum. There is also sporadic profanity throughout.
Photos © Copyright Grosvenor Park Productions and Miramax
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