'Smart People' is smart and funny
A caustic comedy in the vein of Michael Douglas' rich and rewarding "Wonder Boys," "Smart People" stars Dennis Quaid as a literature professor every bit as disoriented as Douglas' meandering academic and would-be author.
Quaid's Lawrence Wetherhold is a frosty intellectual who can't remember his students' names. He sets his office clock forward so he can prematurely turn undergraduates away, and parks his old Volvo anywhere and anyway he pleases. He isn't so much mean as self-absorbed and miles from his full humanity.
A recent widower, Lawrence is comfortably numb, barely interested in career advancement and exhausted by numerous rejections his first book has received from publishers. His nearly-grown children, budding poet James (Ashton Holmes) and SAT brainiac Vanessa Ellen Page of "Juno"), have made emotional accommodations for his lack of interest in them.
Life could simply go on this way forever except for the sudden arrival of Lawrence's ne'er-do-well adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), and a hospital stay that deprives Lawrence of the right to drive. The combination of these random developments results in Chuck's extended visit at his displeased brother's home, and Lawrence's uncomfortable first stirrings of romantic interest in a woman since his late wife.
The lady turns out to be Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a physician who treats Lawrence and who also happens to be a former student with less-than-fond memories of his remote brilliance.
Screenwriter Mark Poirier throws all these ingredients, plus his talent for hilariously barbed dialogue, into a simmering stew of seemingly unresolvable conflicts. (A subplot concerning an awkward development in Vanessa and Chuck's relationship adds more unique tension.)
It's great fun to see how far Lawrence's previously fixed reality can deconstruct before something new and wonderful inevitably emerges. "Smart People" sets up all the delicious conditions for needed change, then sits on its haunches while principal characters lurch, entertainingly, toward their collective evolution. Our only job is to laugh as Lawrence, Chuck, Vanessa and the others take swipes at one another while resisting happiness.
Interestingly, Poirier's script and Noam Murro's crisp direction subtly make Lawrence more of a pivotal figure than a wealth of laughs. Quaid doesn't get most of the film's best and funniest lines; those go to Church and Page, whose characters have a way of turning sarcasm into illuminating grace. Lawrence's sarcasm, by contrast, is played out and ready to be supplanted by soul.
Lawrence's real role in the film is connecting the dots between everyone else. It's really up to Quaid to give him the substance and texture of a central character, and he succeeds wonderfully. Lawrence might be lost in a fog of literary theory, grief and hubris, but Quaid makes him worth salvaging.
★★★ Hey, I Like That!
★★ Now What?
★ I am now two hours older and have nothing to show for it
No Star: Would you hand me another air-sickness bag, please!