Smart People is about the folks – and we all know one or two of them – who are incredibly intelligent yet can’t seem to sort out their personal lives. Dennis Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, a self-absorbed college professor whose life hasn’t been the same since the death of his wife. His most recent book has been rejected all over town, his teaching has become lazy and uninspiring, and he may be passed over for a position he desperately wants.
Lawrence is the kind of guy who expects everyone to be on his same intellectual wavelength, and if they aren’t, he has little use for them. This blunt, pompous attitude has deeply impacted his two children. College student James (Ashton Holmes) is openly resentful of his father. High schooler Vanessa (Ellen Page), on the other hand, is a miniature version of him. She is an academic-focused, cynical, young Republican who inwardly longs for someone to pay attention to her.
Vanessa gets exactly that when Lawrence’s deadbeat adoptive brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) unexpectedly shows up. Chuck helps her tap into a rebellious side no one knew was there, convincing her to smoke weed and drink beer. Most parents would find this disconcerting, but not Lawrence. Although he’s not too happy to see his sibling, he never seems to notice Vanessa’s newfound activities. (Not that he ever noticed her to begin with.) Instead, Lawrence has started dating an ER doctor named Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who was one his student. Like everyone else who ever took his class, Janet finds him to be a blowhard, yet she still maintains the schoolgirl crush she had on him a decade earlier.
Smart People came out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it definitely has that offbeat indie vibe that some people love and others hate. (For the record, I’m in the “love it” category.) There’s really very little plot to speak of. Instead, the movie is more like a slice-of-life character study, where you watch all these smart-yet-clueless individuals bouncing off one another in misguided attempts to, pardon the expression, figure their shit out.
At times – and this is the most significant flaw in Smart People - the emotional connections between the characters are as hazy to us as they are to them. Perhaps this is an intentional filmmaking technique, a way of making the audience perceive the weird, disjointed way these individuals relate to each other. Even if it is technique, you may occasionally be left scratching your head as to why, for instance, Janet seems to be so on-again/off-again in her feelings for Lawrence; whatever initially attracted her to him is generally unclear, as is what attracts her now. The source of the animosity between Lawrence and Chuck is also sketchy. Again, we’re just supposed to accept what we’re told at face value and move forward from there.
If you can get over that, it’s entirely possible to become fully involved with the film, because while the origins of these relationships may be nebulous, the screenplay by Mark Poirier does a pretty good job of developing things from the point at which we enter the story. In other words, he and director Noam Murro don’t care so much about what came before as about what happens now and what will happen next. Although a little background exposition might have turned Smart People into an indie classic, I was able to accept the approach; we’re jumping into these characters’ lives mid-stream, and that’s all there is to it. The reason why I could make that jump – and why I hope others do as well – is that the cast does a superb job of helping to flesh things out. Actors love a good character study, and the stars of Smart People are clearly relishing the chance to explore these fragile human beings.
Dennis Quaid, always an underrated actor in my book, gives one of his best performances as the professor whose common sense doesn’t match his intellect. While Lawrence likes reminding others of his brilliance, his social incompetence is what most end up seeing. Toward the end of the picture, the character openly confesses that he’s had no great epiphanies in his life, and that’s true. He doesn’t undergo some astounding transformation. Nonetheless, Quaid shows us how Lawrence learns something. Parker and Church also do a nice job showing how Chuck and Janet, respectively, try to reconcile their brains with the neuroses that seem to constantly throw them off track.
My favorite performance, though, comes from Ellen Page. It may sound like her character is a slightly more high-falootin’ version of Juno McGuff, but Page builds a completely different persona this time. Whereas some teens consciously rebel, Vanessa doesn’t really want to. She’s an adolescent clone of her father whose wild ways are born not out of rebelliousness but out of an unacknowledged need for someone to recognize her. He may be sending Vanessa the wrong message, but Chuck is at least acknowledging her presence in the world, which is more than she gets from her father. Page is superb in the role, hitting all the right notes of an emotionally walled-up teenager.
Maybe some viewers will be turned off by watching educated, successful characters fumble blindly through interpersonal situations. I found it fascinating. Smart People has its finger on an idea that has become an adage: some folks are book-smart but life-dumb. By the end, I realized that I was rooting for Lawrence and Janet and Chuck and Vanessa to become a little less life-dumb. After all, book learning is great, but it’s the life stuff that ultimately determines real happiness.
( out of four)
Smart People is rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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