by Rob Vaux, published on April 16, 2008|
America exhibits a fundamental distrust of intellectuals. They're an elite, after all, and this country despises elites of any sort. One of the reasons why George Bush took the White House in 2000 (besides, you know, the naked fraud) is because his aw-shucks media persona connected with a number of voters. And on some level, many of them just didn't want snooty egghead Al Gore staring down his nose at us like a disapproving homeroom teacher. Those roots stretch back to the foundation of American culture -- when Washington Irving ran off Ichabod Crane courtesy of the town bully -- and haven't diminished in the slightest with time.
The task of Smart People is to examine that dynamic without joining the lynch mob: to look at very bright, deeply unhappy characters and refrain from judging them because they're "too smart." Director Noam Murro succeeds at the task, though only just and thanks in large part to some very strong ensemble work. He aims for a bittersweet tone of character-based humor in his tale of an academic family who really can't get it together. Widower patriarch Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) has settled into a comfortable life of passive misanthropy, teaching English at Carnegie Mellon and snarling at his students for their perceived intellectual shortcomings. His adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), lacking Lawrence's brain power, has settled for amiably wandering from one dead-end scheme to another. Son James (Ashton Holmes) barely speaks to him, while daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) tends to day-to-day household duties amid a full schedule of Junior Overachiever busywork. Their calcified lives take a shift with the arrival of Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a hospital doctor and former student of Lawrence's who treats him for a head injury and subsequently starts up an awkward romance.
Murro illustrates their dysfunction in both subtle and obvious terms, with the former succeeding far better than the latter. At its worst, Smart People falls back on easy sitcom incidents to poke fun at its characters' foibles, engineering convenient ruts for them to fall into while they squabble and bicker as a demonstration of how Not At Peace they are. Their eventual destination smacks too much of easy solutions as well: like so many other films, Smart People posits a lifetime of troubles only to find a simple and all-too-predictable reason to turn those frowns upside down. The banality of such quick answers degrades the struggles that the rest of the film tries so hard to convey.
At the same time, however, Murro works overtime to find the humanity in his characters, and with help from the cast, the search eventually pays off. Smart People benefits not so much from the destination as it does from the journey: watching the Wetherholds bang into each other and the ways in which they slowly, haltingly find their way out of terminal self-absorbedness. Quaid's surly demeanor speaks to a lot of scars and a lot of fear: things a man so brilliant would naturally try to counter with raw intellect. Page has now officially boxed the precocious teen archetype into a corner and made it her bitch. She has more than a touch of Election's Tracy Flick here, with a Marilyn Quayle hairdo and a Young Republican's condescension for the great unwashed. But her unspoken moments suggest a tremendous loneliness within her, leading to a surprising act of inebriated recklessness upon which the film's secondary plot hinges. Church, too, makes excellent use of a figure he can play in his sleep: his irresponsible doofus still has more peace of mind than any of his brainy relatives and as he did in Sideways, he manages to make Chuck likeable without excusing his fundamental childishness.
All of them circle around the film's central meditation of how people so bright can be so miserable. For most of its running time, it dares to look for the nuances beneath the surface of that equation. The ivory tower holds far more Wetherholds than those outside its confines may suspect: they see too much, they feel too much, and their internal retreat from the world can be readily facilitated by Mensa-level IQs. Intelligence is not the same as wisdom, and in that sense, all their learning has taught them nothing. But unlike other films of this sort, Smart People doesn't believe the two traits are mutually exclusive: there are no holy fools here, no just-plain-folks rich in life's insight to show those pointy-headed nitwits what real smarts are. (Chuck's decisions are no less damaging to his life just because he can accept them more readily, and having more friends just means having a few more spare bedrooms to mooch.) By choosing to defy that cliché, Smart People charts a reasonably original path for its characters' self discovery, helping us to see them in a more illuminating way than most films of this sort would prefer.