Containing the most hot air is Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), and if anyone's in need of deflating, it's him. He's a English Lit professor who's lost his passion for teaching and literature (if he ever had it). He's also most definitely lost any and all interest in his students. He forces them to wear nametags since he can't remember any of them, even ones he's had in his classes more than once. He's pompous, acerbic and generally oblivious to all around him. His son James (Ashton Holmes) has moved out of the house in order to escape the infectious atmosphere there. Now he secretly writes poetry in his dorm. His sister Vanessa (Ellen Page) has tried to clone herself after her dad. She's an overachiever who looks down her nose at all the stupid people in the world. She also tries to fill in the gap left by her late mother. Wetherhold's wife died years ago and he still hasn't recovered from the loss.
But into Lawrence's life come two people. Returning to him is his adopted slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who's desperate for money as well as room and board. Plus there's the invigorating new presence of Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), an ER doctor who tends to him after he gets a concussion trying to reclaim his impounded car. Chuck tries to get Vanessa to cut loose, while Janet turns out to be one of Wetherhold's former students and one who had a "school girl crush" on him. So the status quo is about to be upset.
Smart People scored well at Sundance and in certain respects it's much like another Sundance hit, Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale . Both films focus on burnt out academics trying to get their books published, and the dysfunctional families that they are a part of. In addition, both present us with a child desperately trying to be like a father who has barely noticed them. But while The Squid and the Whale scored a direct hit with his wickedly well-written script, Smart People is more erratic. Part of the problem is that the film wants Wetherhold to be an arrogant bastard who pisses off his students and alienates his family, yet it also wants him to be warm and fuzzy in a redemptive sort of way. First time feature director Noam Murro and novelist turned screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier aren't willing to make their characters unlikable and yet Wetherhold needs to at least initially be a pain in the butt for the story to play out effectively.
Murro comes to feature films from commercials. In the advertising biz, he won acclaim for his work on spots for Adidas, Starbucks and eBay. His transition to the big screen and longer format is mixed. His directing style is surprisingly laid back as he lets scenes and the overall pace of the film feel unhurried. He also coaxes the most unaffected performance from the usually annoyingly self-conscious Sarah Jessica Parker (an actress I will confess to having an aversion to). But he doesn't have the skill or the experience to compensate for the shortcomings in Poirier's script.
The script has it's witty moments but it doesn't have its characters in clear focus. We can't figure out if Wetherhold was any different when his wife was alive or if he was ever even a moderately good teacher. It would be helpful to know if he became this obnoxious pain in the butt only after his wife died or if he's always been this way. In addition, his wife's death has obviously devastated him so it is unconvincing that he would bring her up on his date with Janet and invoke her memory just as he beds this younger woman. The scene rings false and even has a bit of an ick factor to it. Quaid doesn't help. He's a competent actor who just doesn't seem at home in this role. He doesn't relish the intellectual arrogance (like Kevin Kline can do so well) and he's a bit too likable to be credible as a gruff, insensitive academic.
Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page in Smart People (Miramax)
Knowing more about Wetherhold would also help clarify Vanessa's character. She seems to idolize her father and want to be like him yet he doesn't seem like her type of role model. He's not an overachiever like her nor is he organized or effective, qualities she admires. Plus her whole Young Republican obsession doesn't fit in because it seems to annoy her father or at the very least not impress him and impressing him is something she's always keen to do. In The Squid and the Whale , the parent-child dynamic played out much more effectively with the father's arrogance being something that beguiled his young son. That relationship played out with far more dramatic interest than the one in Smart People between Vanessa and her father. Vanessa exists more as a running gag than as a full-blooded character. The casting of Ellen Page also raises some problems. She's good in the role and knows how to deliver lines with zing. But maybe she was too convincing as the spirited rebel Juno or maybe she's just too smart an actress to make us believe that her Vanessa could be so book smart and so real world dumb.
Janet's character also fails to be credible. Why does she take such an interest in a professor who dismissed her so casually and rudely that it prompted her to change majors? Why would she harbor such a crush? I can believe that she would go out with him and even sleep with him just to get him out of her system. But when he continues to prove that he's far too full of himself, her eagerness to still be with him is hard to believe.
Professors are getting a bad rap in recent and upcoming films. Jeff Daniels was the academic in The Squid and the Whale . Kevin Kline played a pontificating prof in Definitely Maybe , and he slept with his youngest and brightest students. In the upcoming The Visitor , Richard Jenkins can't even bother to make eye contact with his students as he teaches from lecture notes that are years old. And Kevin Spacey is an MIT professor who lures his students into an illicit gambling scheme in 21 . Not exactly a gallery of stellar role models. Now Wetherhold comes along to once again suggest that professors take no interest in their students or what they're teaching.
Poirier's script also falls short of capturing the smartness of his characters. Noah Baumbach (who based The Squid and the Whale on personal experiences) wrote lines for Jeff Daniels that succinctly portrayed the intellect and mean-spiritedness of his character. But Poirier's lines for Quaid's Wetherhold only sound superficially smart. For instance, Wetherhold grills his daughter on a string of words she might encounter on her SAT. But the scene doesn't reveal much about Wetherhold, instead it's a shortcut Poirier takes to show off his character's intellect. But rattling off a few fancy words just means that Poirier can use the dictionary effectively. Poirier's script doesn't have the verbal dexterity of Baumbach or a writer like Neil LaBute ( Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, State of Things ).
Smart People (rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality) is a mixed lot but at least it strives for comedy that's a cut above the mindless fare that fills the theaters. It falls short but at least it aims higher than most. In the end, it's diverting but not much more than that.
Companion viewing: The Squid and the Whale , The Visitor, State of Things, Juno