by HELEN GEIB
Smart People is a dramedy about the malaise of the middle class professional. Except when it’s about the unhappiness of its subject’s children, or the self-destructiveness of his love interest, or how dreary it is in Pittsburgh in the winter, or sterile infighting among academics, or one of the other topics that makes a cameo appearance. The story’s lack of focus is the first problem.
The title is intended to be ironic, signaling that the characters are book smart but life stupid. There’s little of real life in what happens on screen, for all the film’s pretensions to verisimilitude, and the script is far too “smart” for its own good. That’s the second problem.
Dennis Quaid stars as Lawrence Wetherhold, a chronically depressed professor of English literature. Lawrence is a widower with a son in college and a daughter (Ellen Page), who is a senior in high school. Lawrence gets on well with his daughter but is semi-estranged from his son. He has a layabout brother named Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) who periodically hits him up for cash. Jenny (Sarah Jessica Parker) completes the main cast as a former student and the emergency room doctor who treats Lawrence when he suffers a trauma induced seizure.
The seizure is important to the plot because it serves to introduce Chuck into the Wetherhold household. Lawrence is not supposed to drive for six months, so the chronically broke Chuck becomes his driver for room and board. Chuck’s purpose in the film is to dispense sage advice about lightening up and being happy. Book stupid but life smart, so to speak.
Chuck is basically a comic character and the film begins as a comedy. The laughs dry up fairly quickly, however, as the film dives deeper into the family’s dysfunction. The film obviously means to make the point that Lawrence’s long-standing funk has poisoned his relationships with his children and compromised his burgeoning romance with Jenny. However, the “we’re miserable and it’s all your fault” storyline, meant to point up Lawrence’s shortcomings, instead backfires badly.
His son is petulant and obnoxious. His daughter, initially an attractive character, is first the victim of a ludicrous and wholly unbelievable plot twist and then turns petulant and obnoxious. It’s as if the film couldn’t bear to allow the father-daughter relationship to continue as healthy and mutually supportive, the way it is first (and convincingly) shown to be. Jenny is by turns a confident, mature professional and petulant and obnoxious. The film generates more and more sympathy for Lawrence as it shows more of what he has to put up with from these unpleasant people, the opposite of the intended effect.
Chuck fares the best in this rogues’ gallery. He is a trial to Lawrence at times (he would be a trial to a saint), but he’s also self-aware and easygoing, and that generates a compensatory charm. All the supporting characters are badly underwritten, Chuck included, but his character suffers the least from the underwriting and it’s no stretch for Church to carry this part.
Quaid fares the best overall. It’s easy to see what attracted him to the role. The film undoubtedly looked on paper like an appealingly quirky character drama, and Lawrence like a much richer character than he is usually offered. He held my interest for a considerable time. By the end, though, I no longer cared even about Lawrence. Smart People is obvious, belabored, and finally tiresome.
1 1/2 stars