Smart People


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A shapeless mess of half-formed characters and overly familiar scenes of bitter domesticity, “Smart People” does not appear to have been crafted by moviemakers who share the title’s description. Even with an excellent cast containing several familiar faces, “Smart People” switches between shrill exhibitions of passive-aggressiveness and melancholic bouts of serious self-pity. With minor exceptions, none of the movie’s inhabitants is likable enough for audience members to muster much sympathy, and the low-key direction and leisurely pacing will cause some to check their watches more than once.

Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a crusty Carnegie Mellon English literature professor still reeling from the death of his wife. Resented by students and barely tolerated by colleagues, Lawrence holds the world in contempt for the miserable state of his day-to-day existence. Along with the typical bursts of withering verbal sarcasm, we know that Wetherhold is a jerk because he takes up two spaces with his shoddy parking. One such incident leads to an unlikely act of rash physicality and a mild injury to the professor’s cranium. The convenient head trauma brings Wetherhold into contact with lonely ER doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who once harbored an inexplicable crush on the grouchy sourpuss.

Forbidden by the hospital to drive his vehicle, Wetherhold reluctantly grants his irresponsible slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) room and board in exchange for chauffer duties. Once ensconced in his brother’s house, free-spirit Chuck forms an unlikely bond with niece Vanessa (Ellen Page), a studious Young Republican who outwardly ridicules her uncle’s lack of ambition. Glad for the company, Chuck introduces Vanessa to alcohol and weed, and she repays him with an awkward and inappropriate crush. Both sets of couples are mismatched for comic effect, but Mark Poirier’s script is so zealous, every intended point of connection between opposites turns out to be a missed opportunity.

Page delivers another performance that shows off her effortless charm as a wiseass, but Vanessa Wetherhold is no Juno MacGuff, and her incestuous affection for Chuck lands like a brick. Actor Ashton Holmes, who plays Vanessa’s poet brother James, suffers through a part so completely underwritten he didn’t even rate inclusion on the movie’s one-sheet. Quaid is thoroughly unlikable in the film’s key role. Why a successful physician like Parker’s Hartigan would tolerate his arrogance and self-absorption is never successfully explained. Of the principal cast, only Thomas Haden Church comes close to playing someone who might be fun to know.

First time feature helmer Noam Murro relies too heavily on syrupy score cues from once and future Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt (who at one point virtually plagiarizes Jimmy Page’s “That’s the Way” chord structure). Collaborator Poirier’s writing doesn’t help matters, but Murro fails to find a comfortable tone. It is uncertain whether the viewer is supposed to identify with the dysfunctional clan or chuckle at their obvious faults. The moviemakers seemingly want to have it both ways, and the result is an inedible stew. “Smart People” has nothing on similarly themed works from which it seems so obviously derived. Skip it and rent “The Squid and the Whale” or “Wonder Boys” instead.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/14/08.

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