Smart People has a lot of good stuff going for it: a great cast (including Ellen Page in the follow-up to her star-making Juno role), sharp and funny dialogue, and a studied look at familial dysfunction.
The movie takes place in a dreary Pittsburgh near the Carnegie Mellon campus and is centered around a family headed by a widowed professor given a name that could only go to a serious blow-hard: Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid). He is father to high school senior Vanessa (Page) and Carnegie Melon student/talented poet James. Lawrence, we quickly learn, also has an adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who's a major slacker and/or free spirit who comes to crash with the family when he's run out of money.
The story isn't the most original idea ever scripted, but if told right, it could have been a nice little movie about learning to love and appreciate the crazy nut-heads we're all dealt in life: our relatives. Unfortunately the loving and appreciating comes far too late and as a result, we end up watching a lot of seriously miserable people roam around being miserable without much point. To see what I think rescues this film from being a total Debbie Downer,
The Wetherholds, save for Chuck, are, as the title suggests, extremely intelligent (in the "we wear tweed and get published in The New Yorker" kind of way) but completely emotionally withdrawn. It takes a new love interest (Sarah Jessica Parker) to begin to melt the ice around the professor's heart and the fun-loving uncle to get the family to reveal an ounce of humanity to the outside world. Thankfully, they're so darn smart that when they take verbal jabs at each other, they're witty and biting enough to make for some good laughs.
Page, in particular, plays her politically conservative, uptight character with the same smart-aleck timing as slacker-teen Juno MacGuff — so it's funny, but not an acting stretch. However, some of the best moments of this film come during her scenes with Church, who takes an interest in getting his stick-in-the-mud niece to loosen up a little. They smoke pot together, get drunk, and have some really wonderfully touching, offbeat moments of bonding that are the result of two fine actors bringing out the best in each other.
Quaid's character, on the other hand, is really quite repellent. He is withdrawn, shows zero interest in his students, takes his children for granted and is that guy who talks about himself for 45 minutes on a date without asking the woman a question. Why would any woman, much less an attractive, accomplished doctor, want to be with him?
Unfortunately, the professor doesn't begin to see the error of his ways until it's much too late and as a result, it's hard to care about him — and, by extension, his family. At least there is one character who found the Wetherholds' repressed, socially awkward personalities unpleasant and indulgent. As Chuck, Church mastered a facial expression during exchanges between these unhappy people that perfectly expressed what I as a viewer was thinking: "Man, and they call me the idiot?"
To see the trailer and more clips from Smart People check out movies.ivillage.com.
Photos courtesy of Miramax Films