What is the price to pay for being excessively smart? For Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), the chances of happiness and sanity are squandered because they are just too smart for their own good. In first time director Noam Murro’s new film “Smart People,” the characters face extremely hard forces of nature that ultimate keep them from the simplicity of being happy. The film isn’t perfect, but it is truly worth of discussion and viewing.
Lawrence Wetherhold is not the most well-liked professor of Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s an incurable grump, with the inability to remember the names of his students or get along with his coworkers. On top of that he has to deal with the arrival of his slacker, adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He also happens to be terrible at parking, which leads his car in the impound lot. Lawrence attempts to retrieve his briefcase by hopping the fence, after which he wakes up light-headed in the hospital. Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), his doctor, was once a former student of his – but of course he can’t remember.
During the accident Lawrence has a seizure, leaving him legally unable to drive for six months. Unfortunately for Lawrence, this means Chuck has to stay in the picture. Chuck moves in, much to the dismay of Lawrence’s super smart and school obsessed 17-year-old daughter Vanessa.
“Smart People” has the good fortune of having an excellent script from Mark Poirier (his first produced screenplay). The film is a lot smarter than its characters. Lawrence and Vanessa are truly depressed characters and are certainly worthy of our sympathies. Vanessa is an especially sad character, unable to express her emotions in fear of showing her weak side. She’s terribly awkward and as the film progresses we learn that she has no friends and even though she strives to impress her father she never gets the gratitude that she truly deserves. Lawrence is also in an unfortunate situation. His book is deemed by a large percentage of publishers to be “unpublishable” and, recently widowed, he can’t let go and thus his blooming relationship with Janet seems to be going nowhere.
The film is exceedingly depressing but very interesting and rarely lags. Dennis Quaid hasn’t fit so well in a role since his turn as Jerry Lee Louis in “Great Balls of Fire.” His performance feels completely lived-in and behind the scholarly beard, protruding gut, and curmudgeonly attitude, he is completely unrecognizable. Ellen Page, fresh off her Oscar nomination for the wonderful “Juno,” takes a bit of a while to get used to. Her character is quite annoying, although necessarily so, and her performance initially seems a little too forced. The role could have been played by any young actress, but in the second half of the film she truly blossoms into the part.
The stand out performance of the “Smart People” belongs to Quaid, but Thomas Haden Church infuses the humanity and humor that lacks from the rest of the Wetherhold family. Church (Oscar Nominee, 2004’s “Sideways”) has the inimitable talent of delivering his lines in a very comedic way and with perfect timing. Playing Quaid’s poetry writing son James is Ashton Holmes (“A History of Violence”). James is the most level-headed member of the family, and Holmes’ performance is quite fitting but unfortunately not very memorable. Sarah Jessica Parker is also non-memorable and while she performed well enough, she just didn’t fit the part.
There are a few issues that could have been avoided with this film. There are multiple storylines that are never really tied up well, or even at all. Vanessa is a girl with some real psychological problems, and her character’s revelation never really feels merited. She also has an awkward sexual tension with her Uncle Chuck, and the resolution just doesn’t feel deserved. The musical soundtrack also feels a bit awkward. There’s an unwelcome, rambling guitar theme that doesn’t fulfill any emotional gaps, and the surplus of similar pop/folk songs are ill-suited.
“Smart People” is not a film for everybody. At many times it feels a bit too quirky, and the film’s overall depressing nature may turn off a lot of viewers. The performances are top-notch especially due to the odd casting choices. Fans of “Juno” may find themselves interested due to Page, but that film was more upbeat and lighthearted than this film by far. The best part about this movie is the career-changing role for Quaid, who’s been in a bit of a lull lately and it’s a fresh re-ignition of a very talented actor. A very thought-provoking film, “Smart People” is worthy of praise, and isn’t too smart for your average audience.