by Liz Braun, Sun Media, published on April 11, 2008|
Smart People is a movie with love and humour, but you'd never call it a romantic comedy.
An understated film about self-image and second chances, Smart People stars Dennis Quaid as a schlumpy, absent-minded university professor who has lost interest in just about everything. He can't remember the names of any of his students. He gives literature lectures on automatic pilot. His emotional state is summed up by the fact that he clings to an old greeting card from his dead wife -- a card congratulating him on achieving a tenured position at the university.
Quaid's character, the widower professor Lawrence Wetherhold, shares his ivory tower with his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), who is 17 and almost as smart, remote and smug as her father. Professor Wetherhold has a brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), and Professor Wetherhold never fails to remind the less intellectual Chuck that he was indeed adopted.
While the cynical and brilliant Vanessa works on getting a perfect SAT score, dad has an accident that brings Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) into the story. Dr. Hartigan happens to have once been a student of Professor Wetherhold's, and an awkward dating scenario develops: The doctor is cautious, the professor is selfish, daughter Vanessa is threatened by the whole thing and Uncle Chuck provides beer and life wisdom to this passel of over-thinkers.
Smart People suggests that even those who put brain before heart can change for the better, emotionally speaking. The film is primarily character driven, populated by three-dimensional people and chock-full of wit and sardonic dialogue. Not counting the sitcom-ish final act, the movie is almost completely free of stupid plot developments and unlikely events, which is a massive relief. Overall, it's a pleasure to watch.
There are plenty of flaws to Smart People, however, not the least of which is the suggestion that academics are somehow inherently ridiculous -- a notion illustrated with stereotypes and dated humour. If you want to take on intellectuals, you might need to kick the writing up a notch, wouldn't you think? Moreover, this is a movie that sees fit to show Thomas Haden Church's naked bottom twice, which is both comedy overkill and an obstacle to forwarding the theory that dumb and happy trumps smart and unhappy.
The performances carry Smart People. Dennis Quaid is suitably fussy and superior, and inhabits his character nicely with the help of a bad haircut and poor posture. Separated here from idiotic material for perhaps the first time in her career, Sarah Jessica Parker is understated and watchable, and Thomas Haden Church is, as always, pretty close to brilliant.
And what about Halifax's Oscar nominee Ellen Page? We are happy to report she has enough going on all by herself to make this thing worth the price of admission. Every scene she's in is marvelous.
(This film is rated 14-A)