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» A Disagreeable Academic, and a Tonic Named Sarah Jessica Parker

By A. O. Scott, published on April 11, 2008

If you are in the mood for a movie about the rejuvenation of an aging, widowed college professor — and don’t pretend you aren’t — then this is a weekend of rare and unexpected abundance. By some miracle of film industry serendipity, two such movies are opening today in limited release. Even more bizarre: each is pretty good.

In “The Visitor”, Richard Jenkins plays an economist whose flagging joie de vivre is restored when he takes up drumming. “Smart People” is more or less the same deal, except that its protagonist, played by Dennis Quaid, is a specialist in Victorian literature, and his flagging joie de vivre is restored when he goes to bed with Sarah Jessica Parker. Whatever gets you through the semester, I guess.

Seriously, though, what these two films — one a restrained drama, the other a frisky comedy — share is less the situation of their main characters than the superior work of the men who portray them. There is something about impersonating thwarted intellectuals, their early promise and ambition fading into vanity and irrelevance, that inspires a certain kind of actor to tap into deep veins of pathos and wit. Jeff Daniels struck the modern template for this kind of performance in “The Squid and the Whale,” and in their different ways Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Quaid live up to his high standard.

Mr. Quaid, his handsomeness distorted and obscured by stooped shoulders, a sagging belly and wayward facial hair, plays Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon whose general unpleasantness seems less like a personality trait than like a belief system. His narcissism is a seamless coat of many colors, a weave of grief for his dead wife, resentment at how much the world demands of him and the conviction that he is smarter than everybody else.

His son, James (Ashton Holmes), an aspiring poet and a student at the college, finds Lawrence’s imperiousness nearly intolerable, while his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), carefully tends the flame of her father’s ego and takes him as a role model in contrarianism. Secure in the sense of her own superiority and proud of her political conservatism, Vanessa is Diablo Cody’s Juno rewritten by Ayn Rand.

Actually, the excellent script for “Smart People” is the work of Mark Jude Poirier, a fiction writer who has clearly spent enough time around English departments to have studied the tribal ways of the literary professoriate with ethnographic rigor. The scenes of Lawrence in the classroom or in department meetings are among the most frighteningly, comically accurate such moments I have ever seen on film.

That may sound like a minor accomplishment, but the great virtue of “Smart People,” attributable to Noam Murro’s easygoing direction as well as to Mr. Poirier’s wandering screenplay, lies in its general preference for small insights over grand revelations. There is a fairly busy plot, and some of its developments — an unplanned pregnancy, a flicker of quasi-incestuous sexual interest, the acceptance of a poem by The New Yorker — clatter onto the screen like carelessly flung darts. But to a greater extent than in most comedies, the narrative seems more like background or scaffolding than like the engine that drives the characters, who are propelled instead by their own colliding, confusing, idiosyncratic energies.

Lawrence, sour patriarch and weary pedagogue, may dominate the landscape, but the people surrounding him are much more than mere foils or supporting players. Ms. Page is both sharp and brittle, but as she did with Juno, she allows Vanessa’s callowness and uncertainty to show through her veneer of sarcastic poise. Ms. Parker, as Janet Hartigan, a former student of Lawrence’s whose undergraduate crush on him is revived when they meet in a hospital emergency room (she as doctor, he as patient), cuts her natural charm with a very real sense of anxiety and disappointment. And above all there is Thomas Haden Church, suavely stealing scenes from Mr. Quaid in the slightly implausible but nonetheless charming role of Lawrence’s ne’er-do-well adoptive brother, Chuck.

Chuck, whose refusal to act his age seems as defiant and deliberate as his brother’s decision to act much older than his, crashes in Lawrence’s guest room and strikes up an occasionally awkward friendship with Vanessa. Lawrence, meanwhile, pursues an equally awkward affair with Janet, whose consequent rivalry with Vanessa is both unstated and unmistakable.

Over the course of the movie everyone changes, but the filmmakers don’t force them into preordained postures of redemption. They are defiantly fixed in their personalities even as they show — and eventually acknowledge — some room for improvement. But none undergo the kind of hokey, wholesale transformations that too often turn brisk comedies into damp melodramas. They, and the filmmakers, are too proud — and too smart — for that kind of nonsense. The ordinary nonsense of human imperfection will do just fine.

“Smart People” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has swearing, drug use and two lingering glances at Mr. Church’s naked buttocks.


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