A clueless, self-absorbed college professor learns to cope with his late wife’s memories and his dysfunctional family when his free-spirited brother comes back into his life in the absurd comedy/drama, “Smart People.”
Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is stuffy, arrogant, pompous windbag who has such tunnel vision that he sees nothing or no one except his tiny, selfish concerns. The only people who he remotely is interested other than himself is his two children, James (Ashton Holmes) and his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Paige). Devoid of their father’s attention, the two children have grown up resentful and miserable.
While teaching at Carnegie Mellon, Wetherhold constantly runs into old students who he doesn’t recognize nor whose names he can’t remember. After years of mistreating his students, Wetherhold gets his comeuppance when his car is impounded and he has an accident scaling a fence and is hospitalized. Once again his physician, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) is not only his former student but also had a crush on the professor years earlier.
With his driving privileges revoked, Wetherhold has no choice but to let his recently returned unorthodoxed brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) move back into his home and serve as his driver. Dropping the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants breath of fresh air into the house changes the family’s dynamic. Uptight Vanessa, who is studying for the “perfect SAT score,” finally has someone that she can relate to. After sharing with her “adopted” uncle that she has been admitted into Stanford University, Chuck gets her drunk and the two share an “awkward” moment that changes their relationship.
Meanwhile the socially inept Wetherhold blows his first date with Hartigan after aimlessly rambling on for almost an hour. He’s so eager to discuss his failed novel, “You Can’t Read,” that he doesn’t realize that he is not alone. And on and on it goes. His daughter Vanessa is jealous of the attention he gives his new “girlfriend,” and the lack of attention that she’s getting from Chuck.
You get the idea – everybody’s miserable.
With plenty of wine flowing and another effectively quirky performance by Church, it is no coincidence that producer Michael London also produced the 2004 hit film, “Sideways.” Much like that film, intelligence is ridiculed in “Smart People” much to the delight and amusement of many in the audience who enjoy watching the smart suffer. The story’s smartest character, Chuck, is also the one with the least book knowledge but who is wise beyond his years in common sense. Much like a specialty seasoning, Church spices up every scene he has in the film with humor. He provides balance for Quaid in the same manner as he did for Paul Giamatti in “Sideways.”
While Page is funny and good in this film, the time has come for her to play a different character before she becomes typecast. She can only play the young, wisecracking, wise teen for so long until audiences get comfortable with her as that and find her unbelievable as anything else.
As the romantic lead, Parker revisits her “Sex in the City” angst to play the girlfriend of a man whose intelligence she respects but whose personality she abhors. Under the direction of Noam Murro, the film is like an onion that the more you peel away, the more your eyes become uncomfortable with just how unhappy and sad everyone is.
The irony of “Smart People,” is that although every character has a high degree of intelligence, none can figure out how to make each other happy – they are simply there for the amusement of the rest of us!