Movies teach us many things. Guns can solve problems, the nice guy may not get the redhead but he's got a blonde waiting for him in the parking lot, Patrick Dempsey is harder to get rid of and more dangerous than mold, and smart people are really stupid when it comes to things that have to do with love and emotions and having private lives. Books are good for some things, but not understanding what you really need to be fulfilled. If they taught us stuff like that, why would we need movies? Thank you, Cinema!
Of course, movies also teach us that any hoary old chestnut can be made to taste fresh again with the right cast and a decent script, and so Smart People somehow manages to show us once again how stupid brainy people can be and make us like it, damn it!
Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a literature professor so stuffy that even his name is bursting with pedantry. Stuck in the same gear ever since his wife passed away, Lawrence has lost all passion for teaching. It's not his fault, though, it's the students who have stopped caring. His fellow scholars aren't much good either, peddling hackneyed ideas and failing to see the genius of the book he wrote that lays out exactly what is wrong with their way of thinking. Lawrence's defeat is like that Patrick Dempsey mold: it's everywhere, and it's creeping.
The professor lives alone with his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), a grade-obsessed Young Republican who has stepped into her mother's shoes. When her nose is not buried in a book or stuck in the air so she can look down on others, Vanessa is making dinner or doing the laundry. Her older brother, James (Ashton Holmes), has made a mediocre escape, moving into the dorms across town to get free tuition from daddy's bosses and write poetry. Also lurking around is Lawrence's deadbeat adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who may not have a job but who knows how to have fun and sees where the rest of the family has gone wrong. I cringed when Chuck first appeared, photocopying his navel for the delight of co-eds, but rather than being as broadly drawn as you would first assume, Chuck turns into a real boy by the end. He may be an oaf, but he has some actual heart and knows when to dial down the antics.
In fact, all of the characters in Smart People have more nuance than is initially evident. Sure, they fit neatly into pre-assigned slots, but all of the actors manage to work within those confines very well. Ellen Page is essentially playing the evil twin of her Juno character, but this time she actually is as smart as she thinks she is. This gives a whole new twist to regular teenage insecurities, and she manages to convey the pain of her loss and the fear of the oncoming life changes by cutting off the flow of words and letting a well-placed expression of pain do the talking.
So, too, does Dennis Quaid bring real sympathy to a shlubby performance. Wearing a fake potbelly under his ill-fitting shirt and shuffling down the halls of academia as if death awaits him wherever he may be going, the actor takes all of his natural charisma and scatters it on the wind, giving his character something to search for throughout the picture. Seeing him crawl out of a crusty shell of mourning to try and date one of his former students (Sarah Jessica Parker), a doctor who treats him after an accident, has a real sweet center to it that makes you care for the man and understand why this woman keeps giving him more chances, even if his actions don't really suggest she should.
Which I actually think puts the finger on the nagging feeling that something is not entirely right about Smart People: the actors are so good and are all people we like, and so maybe they convince us to invest a little more into what happens to their characters than Smart People actually deserves. Directed by first-time director Noam Murro and written by debut scribe Mark Jude Poirier, the film suffers from a propensity to travel down the middle of the road. Murro in particular shoots the film in a very generic style, relying heavily on wordy soft-pop songs to prop up his poignant scenes rather than letting his performers find the emotional thrust. The songs seem to be shortcuts to try to give Smart People a lighter air, something more akin to a film by Alexander Payne or Paul Weitz; Poirier's writing is good, but he lacks the wit of either writer. He also lacks the gravitas and the self-mockery of a Noah Baumbach, and so the film doesn't manage to strike a heavier tone, either. Instead, again, it's somewhere in the middle, a picture in search of a purpose.
That's not enough to suggest you should stay away from Smart People. It may be slightly hobbled, but it's still very good. The life wreckage the movie sifts through is severe, and it doesn't take the soft options that more conventional fare would naturally go for. Despite the vanilla that they've frosted this cake with, Murro and Poirier do deserve some measure of applause for being tough-minded and avoiding healing their characters with easy medicine. The direction is bland and the overall tone a little flat, yet there is still real drama here and actual people to care about. Even with my grumbling, I really wanted to see how all of them people would make it out of the woods and was happy when they found a way
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.