With the familiar whiff of tweedy films like “Wonder Boys” and “The Squid and the Whale” emanating from it, “Smart People” smells like the kind of movie that would debut at Sundance and appeal to New Yorker subscribers. And what do you know, that’s what it is!
Not in a bad way, though. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Noam Murro and written by novelist Mark Poirier, the film has a liberal, academic, East Coast tone to it, but most of the characters don’t fit that description. (There’s even a token Republican, though I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take her.) In fact, much of the humor comes from people’s reactions (usually adverse) to the main character, who is a liberal East Coast academic type. He’s also, in the words of an admirer, a “surly, smarter-than-thou a**hole.” Like I said, that’s one of his admirers talking.
How can we like such a man? Well, that’s the interesting part. His name is Lawrence Wetherhold, and he is played by Dennis Quaid. Putting his huge Joker grin to malevolent use, Quaid portrays Lawrence as a smug, self-absorbed Carnegie Mellon literature professor who is uninterested in his students and, it would seem, in teaching itself. Everyone on campus has taken a class from him at some point, and nobody has fond memories of it. It doesn’t help that he consistently fails to remember having met any of his former students before.
As expected, Lawrence’s personal life is just as disheveled as his professional one. His wife is dead. His high-schooler daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), is the Young Republican and essentially his replacement wife (no, not like that) and best friend. He has a son, James (Ashton Holmes), at Carnegie Mellon who can’t do anything right in his eyes. He also has a shiftless adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church, essentially reprising his “Sideways” character), who shows up to mooch off him for a while and be an irresponsible thorn in his side.
Getting back to that question, how can we like a guy like Lawrence? Because we sympathize with him. Quaid makes him human. He makes him a jerk in ways we can relate to; the dead wife (and his inability to get over her) helps. While Lawrence doesn’t realize, at first, how messed-up he is, we do, and we’re rooting for him to get his head out of his butt and get his life in order.
Chuck’s moving in is a catalyst. Chuck may be shiftless and unreliable, but objectively speaking, is he any less of a blight on society than an apathetic college professor who thinks only of himself? At least Chuck is happy.
In addition, Lawrence meets and starts dating a doctor named Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). She took a class from him way back in her freshman year, and he frightened her out of the English department and into the loving arms of biology. Her opinion of him now is the same as it was then, but she slowly warms to him — and, more importantly, she actually calls him on his arrogance. Few people who mattered to him had done that before.
Though Lawrence is the main character, the relationships among the other figures are important, too, including Vanessa’s interaction with her Uncle Chuck and her jealous reaction to Dr. Janet. The point is that everyone here is smart, but being smart doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to function in life. That’s a common theme in these rumpled-professor stories, but “Smart People” handles it with wit and charm and even a little poignance.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; )