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Smart People

...Doing Very Stupid Things

Directed by Noam Murro and written by novelist-turned-screenwriter Mark Poirier, Smart People is a sometimes too clever, sometimes too contrived comedy/drama centered on a dysfunctional family and their many missteps as they learn, once again, that it’s love that offers the answers to all of life’s seemingly unanswerable questions.
Predictable as that sounds, Smart People benefits hugely from a talented cast adding nuance and shading to their screwed-up characters and Poirier’s often witty, insightful dialogue. This film may not be the next Little Miss Sunshine or The Squid and the Whale for that matter, but it’s the next best thing to revisiting those films and for moviegoers looking for an intelligent, thought-provoking drama this weekend, it may just be enough.

A tenured English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid, bearded & disheveled), is in mid-crisis mode. A widower who hasn’t gotten over the loss of his wife, he finds little solace either in teaching (he’s curt and rude to his students) or in writing (his latest manuscript has been rejected numerous times). His two children, James (Ashton Holmes), a poetry-inclined student at Carnegie, and Vanessa (Ellen Page), a hyper-articulate high school senior, Young Republican, and surrogate housewife for the Wetherhold, clan, is secretly waiting on early acceptance from Stanford University. Lawrence hopes Vanessa will stay close to home and attend Carnegie with her brother (tuition is free for the children of tenured faculty).

With all that's going on, Lawrence isn’t prepared for his adopted brother Chuck’s (Thomas Haden Church) reappearance. Chuck, the family ne’er-do-well, is long on ways to turn a quick buck and short on money. Lawrence at first refuses to lend Chuck a hand, but when he injures his head in an accident, Chuck is there to help as Lawrence’s able-bodied chauffeur. Lawrence’s seemingly bad luck turns good when the ER doctor (and former student), Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), expresses romantic interest. Lawrence’s self-absorption, natural elitism, and brusque manner aren’t exactly endearing, but Janet seems willing to look beyond Lawrence’s external traits to the wounded, love-starved man underneath.

As written by Poirier, the characters in the ironically titled Smart People may be academically intelligent, but they are idiotic when it comes to personal relationships and social interactions. While most of the characters are, at least, relatable, Poirier runs into trouble early on, first by relying heavily on coincidence and contrivance to force Lawrence and Chuck together and then, almost as quickly, Lawrence and the underwritten Janet. Janet’s interest in Lawrence, presumably the result of a long-held college crush, doesn’t seem believable, especially when Lawrence fails to impress her with his boorish behavior. We’re also expected to believe that not only can Lawrence change through the power of love, but that the seemingly marginal change in behavior is also enough to convince Janet to give him a chance.

That aside, what Smart People has to offer is a sharp, clever script peppered with insightful dialogue and solid, convincing performances from a seriously talented cast all around, including an idiosyncratic performance by Dennis Quaid that goes well beyond his comfort zone as an actor (not to mention his persona). Jessica Sarah Parker doesn’t fare as well, but that’s due much to her underwritten character and her coming in late to the production (she replaced Rachel Weisz). Ellen Page, note-perfect here as she’s been in previous roles, seems to be stuck in a typecasting rut, however, playing self-aware, hyper-articulate, neurotic teenagers. Hopefully, Page will expand her repertoire as an actress in upcoming roles (frankly, it’s time she does).

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars