Smart people do not always lead their lives in intelligent ways. If you want to put it another way, intelligence guarantees neither happiness nor contentment.
Consider the Carnegie-Mellon English professor played by Dennis Quaid in “Smart People,” a character-driven drama directed by Noam Murro and written by former Bennington College professor Mark Jude Poirier.
Even if he were not left a widower, you suspect that Quaid’s Lawrence Wetherhold was always more the scholar than the teacher. If he has an impressive résumé, he is also the kind of professor too full of himself to remember his students’ names or care about their development. When we meet him, he is pretty much of a burnt-out case — a disheveled middle-aged man caring for his daughter Vanessa, a high school senior played by Ellen Page, and his son James, a college student portrayed by Ashton Holmes.
When the professor injures his head trying to jump a fence, he begrudgingly accepts the presence of his “adopted brother” Chuck, portrayed by Thomas Haden Church, who created a similarly offbeat character in “Sideways.”
Caught in a malaise
Everyone in Wetherhold’s family is smart, but for smart people, they are clearly living in a world of discontent. If they are terrific at Scrabble or engaging in witty repartees about linguistic nuances, their emotional center wobbles on shaky soil. They are not smart enough to make things work, and it’s no exaggeration to note that the professor’s attitude and disposition are at the root of the malaise. Witness the mood at a Christmas dinner that seems more like a funeral than a celebration.
DIRECTED BY Noam Murro
SCREENPLAY BY Mark Jude Poirier
STARRING Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Ashton Holmes
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
Enter into this world of hurt an emergency room physician who happens to be a former student. Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) is still smarting from the C that Professor Wetherhold gave her on a freshman paper, and true to form, the curmudgeonly professor of Victorian Lit does not remember his ex-student, who nevertheless has a lingering crush on him. Their first date is a bust, but as you may surmise, there is still hope for love and romance. If only Professor Wetherhold will learn to shed his narcissistic personality. You know those English teachers: always wanting and unable to resist the urge to lecture friends, spouses and lovers about their favorite books and pet theories.
Though the narrative drive of “Smart People” centers on the emotional resurrection of a teacher and the possibility of romance with his ex-student, it is primarily an amiable, often insightful presentation of brainy characters in a dysfunctional family. Quaid is convincing as a scholar who finally sees through the silly, egotistical squabbles infecting academia in general, while Page is once more credible as the sassy kid we also met in “Juno.” If I were to offer her some career advice, she should now move on to portraying a different kind of character.
As I mentioned, Church basically reprises the aimless fellow he created in “Sideways,” Parker is adequate, and Holmes gets too little time. Those who savor movies about families and smart character exposition will have a really good time.
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