At the center of Smart People is one of those curmudgeonly professor characters so self-absorbed, so pedantic it’s almost impossible to like him. He’s intelligent, but if there ever was a human embodiment of the saying “too smart for his own good” this is it. He pretentiously drones on and on about Victorian literature. He’s the kind of guy who says, “adopted brother,” when introducing Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), his middle-aged sibling. He’s a widower and we get the impression early on that the only person he could relate to was his late wife and with her gone he is completely socially adrift. In real life you wouldn’t want to spend one second with Lawrence Wetherhold, but as portrayed by Dennis Quaid he’s a compelling character who sets a number of storylines in motion.
He’s the patriarch of a suitably quirky family. Daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is an acid-tongued neo-con brainiac—think Ann Coulter only slightly less annoying—who longs for the glory days of Ronald Reagan and is obsessed with acing her SATs. Son James (Ashton Holmes) is distant—think every underwritten troubled teenage character you’ve ever seen on film—living in the shadow of his brilliant father and sister. The professor cares more for his unpublished manuscript than his kids or his students. He is shaken out of his mid-life self-pitying trance when his brother—adopted brother, that is—and a former student in the form of Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker)—who works at the least busy ER ever seen on film—enter his life.
Five minutes into Smart People you know that the characters will emerge on the other end as better people, enriched in unlikely ways from unlikely sources; it’s that kind of movie. Since there are very few surprises (although there are a couple of unusual twists) in the story it’s up to the characters to carry the show. Luckily Smart People can boast a solid cast doing good work.
At the helm is Dennis Quaid who has thrown vanity out the window to play the paunchy professor. His leading man good looks still sneak through a scraggly beard and lined face, but the cocky swagger of past roles like Remy McSwain in The Big Easy or Great Balls of Fire’s Jerry Lee Lewis has been replaced with a limping gait. It looks good on him. It’s a role where character is utmost and his world weary take on the pompous professor is spot on.
Ellen Page, the Halifax-born Hollywood “It-Girl” hands in another nice performance. Her take on Vanessa is the polar opposite of the free-spirited character she played in Juno, which earned her an Academy Award nomination this year. She’s a Young Republican of the Alex P. Keaton School, complete with portraits of Ronald Reagan on her bedroom walls. She could easily be a conservative caricature but Page digs a little deeper and gives Vanessa insecurities and weaknesses that lie just under the surface of her carefully manicured Fox News façade.
In the supporting roles Sarah Jessica Parker is solid but gets steamrolled by a scene stealing Thomas Hayden Church as Chuck the down-on-his-luck brother. Wetherhold refers to him as a “giant toddler” and he’s always grasping at some kind of get rich quick scheme, but in his own homespun way he has far more understanding of the human condition than either of his more learned relatives. It’s his light touch, reminiscent of his work in Sideways, which gives Smart People its best moments.
Smart People is a well-written film with sparkling dialogue and good actors who know how to deliver the material. Best of all it’s peppered with laughs and doesn’t try that hard to be heartwarming.