Review by Michael M. Dance|
Smart People is about an uppity jerk of a college professor and his moody, politically conservative daughter. I mentioned the film in my review of Run Fatboy Run by saying that it presents these characters almost like a bet to the audience: by the end of the movie, it challenges us, we'll like them.
My point was that manipulating an audience's sympathies can be tricky. While Run Fatboy Run trusted that we'd like the protagonist just because he was the protagonist, the whole point of Smart People seems to be to find the inner goodness of fundamentally unlikable archetypes. It succeeds.
The actors are just as responsible as the fine-tuned script. Dennis Quaid, even beneath an unkempt beard and a prissy mumble, is charming as the professor, Lawrence Wetherhold. So is Ellen Page as his daughter Vanessa, who's like a mirror image of Page's most famous character: like Juno, she's intelligent but unworldly, but unlike Juno, she uses that intelligence to keep herself at odds with the world.
The plot kicks into gear when two people enter their lives. The first is Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Lawrence's adopted brother. He shows up to ask for money and ends up staying after Lawrence suffers a minor seizure, gets his license suspended, and needs someone to drive him around. You put Haden Church in a slacker role, and your work is done; he's basically doing a scruffier variation of his Sideways role, but it works, and a less anal presence in the house predictably gets Vanessa to loosen up a bit.
The other person is Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of Lawrence's who now works as a nurse and treats him after his seizure. They begin a very tentative romance, but it doesn't feel forced. It's a one step forward, two steps back kind of thing, like when Lawrence takes her out to dinner and talks nonstop about Victorian novels for forty-five minutes.
It's true that this is yet another indie comedy populated by quirky characters it's no surprise that it came out of Sundance but for once, it doesn't overdo the quirk, minus a few exceptions (like when Chuck welcomes Janet inside for Christmas dinner). Instead, the characters more or less feel like real people inhabiting a real world. Lawrence also has a son, James (Ashton Holmes of A History of Violence), who goes to the same college, although he's the most underdeveloped character, appearing occasionally to trade barbs with Vanessa at family dinners.
Watching Lawrence and Vanessa slowly become human beings makes for a pleasant enough time, although the scenes with Vanessa and Chuck, perhaps by design, have a lot more energy than the ones with Lawrence and Janet. Then again, some of the subplots are pretty funny, like Lawrence's quest to get his book published. Some kind of obnoxious critique on the modern literary world called You Can't Read, it finally finds a publisher who tells Lawrence he likes it because "people will love to hate you." Ironically, growing to like him is one of the chief pleasures of Smart People.
Movie Grade: B+
Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) might be imperiously brilliant, monumentally self-possessed and an intellectual giant but when it comes to solving the conundrums of love and family, he's as downright flummoxed as the next guy. His teenaged daughter (Ellen Page) is an acid-tongued overachiever who follows all too closely in dad's misery-loving footsteps, and his adopted, preposterously ne'er-do-well brother (Thomas Haden Church) has perfected the art of freeloading. A widower who can't seem to find passion in anything anymore, not even the Victorian Literature in which he's an expert, it seems Lawrence is sleepwalking through a very stunted middle age. When his brother shows up unexpectedly for an extended stay at just about the same time as he accidentally encounters his former student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), the circumstances cause him to stir from his deep, deep freeze, with often comical, sometimes heartbreaking, consequences for himself and everyone around him.