If you went solely by the movies, one might think that college professors are the unhappiest people in the world. From The Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale to The Savages and The Visitor, filmdom has effectively painted academia as a toxic hell of narcissistic, self-loathing misanthropes. And those are the lovable ones.
The march of the college curmudgeon continues in Smart People, a dramedy in which Dennis Quaid sports a beard and a fat suit to play a cold intellectual desperately in need of an emotional thawing. It traipses ever so closely to the realm of indie preciousness, but the picture is ultimately bolstered by a first-rate cast who (mostly) rescue their respective characters from cliché.
The cranky professor du jour of Smart People is Lawrence Wetherhold, a gloomy widower who teaches literature at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. With perpetually knotted brow and scowl, Lawrence has shaped his depression into a general disdain for humanity, so contemptuous of his students that he even rigs his office clock just so he can avoid actually talking to them during office hours.
Karma literally smacks down Lawrence when he tries scaling a fence to retrieve his car, which has been impounded by campus police for a traffic violation. He winds up in the hospital with a head injury that prevents him from driving for six months.
The restriction leaves Lawrence with no recourse but to rely on his ne'er-do-well brother (adopted brother, Lawrence stresses), Chuck, who agrees to do the chauffeuring in exchange for a place to crash. The arrangement allows Chuck, one of those irresistible stock characters whose irresponsibility is mistaken as free-spirited, a chance to loosen up Lawrence's supremely uptight 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page, in a pre-Juno movie shoot).
While staunch Republican Vanessa is smoking pot with Uncle Chuck, Lawrence gets his own tutelage in life from emergency room Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). The doctor, it turns out, is an ex-student of Lawrence's who once harbored a schoolgirl crush on the professor. He doesn't remember her, of course -- Lawrence makes it a point not to know any of his students -- but he welcomes the opportunity to finally date again.
One of the more impressive aspects of Smart People is the refusal by director Noam Muro and novelist-turned-screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier to spoon-feed viewers. Audiences don't need to be led by the hand to deduce that Lawrence's social isolation stems from his wife's death. Similarly, the filmmakers eschew wheezy exposition and allow us to recognize gradually how the woman's passing has spurred Vanessa's protectiveness of her father. Smart People presumes that its viewers are smart, too.
The performances certainly belong at the head of the class. The typically underrated Quaid is convincingly melancholy (and abrasive) as Lawrence Wetherhold. Church has wryly comic moments at Chuck, while Page demonstrates her versatility as a young woman headed for the same misery as her father. Parker does her best with an underwritten role, while Ashton Holmes registers in his few scenes as Lawrence's neglected son.
Still, capable acting and a refreshingly grownup script don't completely obscure the sense that you've been down this celluloid road before. Smart People is a good film that suffers by comparison to others. It lacks the blood-letting bite of The Squid and the Whale, the humor of The Wonder Boys and the emotional resonance of The Visitor or The Savages.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the print is as strong and clean as you would expect from a recent theatrical release. There is minor grain and softness in some of the images, but both appear to be by design.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is low-key as befits a dialogue-driven movie. Optional subtitles are in Spanish, French and English for the hearing-impaired.
Director Noam Muro and writer Mark Jude Piorier are low-key, sedate -- and just a bit dull, to be honest -- on a commentary track. Even with the two commentators, there are some patches of dead air.
A 16-minute, 30-second featurette, The Smartest People, is standard making-of fare, with cast and crew waxing on the moviemaking process. Nine deleted scenes (aggregate 9:58 running time) are of so-so worth; viewers can check the material out separately or play consecutively. A blasé gag reel entitled Not So Smart runs two minutes and five seconds. Oh, and there's an Easter Egg: Smart People at Sundance (4:07) chronicles the film's screening at the celebrated indie film festival.
While I don't share the disappointment that my fellow DVD Talk reviewers Don Houston and Cameron McGaughy have for Smart People, I'll concede that the movie has some difficulty moving beyond the general dreariness of its characters. But all is not lost. Strong performances and writing make the film worth seeing.