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Smart People (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 27, 2023


Starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti, David Denman, Amanda Jane Cooper, Barret Hackney, Camille Mana and Don Wadsworth.

Screenplay by Mark Jude Poirier.

Directed by Noam Murro.

Distributed by Miramax Pictures. 95 minutes. Rated R.

It's tough to watch Smart People without drawing comparisons to the rather similar and somewhat overlooked 2000 Michael Douglas film Wonder Boys. Both films are about burnt-out, middle-aged literature professors who have put their lives on hold. Both have lost their wives (one to death, the other to separation). Both have lost the passion for teaching, avoid contact with their students, are deeply embroiled in campus politics, and seem unable to get published. Quirky family and friends surround both. Both finally regain their passion for life and learning through romantic connections with another woman, an unexpected pregnancy, and a friendship with an eccentric man. The two films even take place at the same college – Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the houses where the professors live are so similar that I'd bet they are in the same neighborhood.

The comparisons do Smart People no favors, because Wonder Boys was clearly a better film: quirkier, darker, and much less predictable. And, sad to say, Smart People is not nearly as smart – either about human interaction or the minutiae of campus life.

However, just because Smart People is not as good as Wonder Boys, does that necessarily make it a bad film? No, it certainly isn't – although it's not all that good a film, either. Smart People is actually a pretty intriguing idea, well-acted and mostly briskly paced, but the filmmakers can't quite make it work as well as it should.

Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a tenured widowed professor who has become a miserable jerk to pretty much everyone he knows. The movie suggests that the loss of his wife caused his anti-social streak, but you never get any real hint that anyone ever liked him.

He has a son (Ashton Holmes) who is a budding poet and trying hard to get out of his father's world. Wetherhold's daughter on the other hand is turning into her dad, she is an uptight, overly driven, socially inept young Republican. (The idea of a literature professor's daughter in the middle of a Blue State trying to bond with her dad by becoming a humorless conservative seems like a bit of a stretch, but okay...) The daughter is played by Ellen Page, who filmed this before her breakthrough role of Juno, though it was not released until after that film became a deserved hit – which is just as well because this film is a much lesser showcase for the impressive young actor.

One day Wetherhold's ne'er-do-well half-brother shows up looking for money or a place to stay a while. Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) has never been to college, but he knows much more about life than Wetherhold does – despite the fact that he's a bit of a scam artist.

Through a rather strained series of events, Wetherhold gets a concussion and has a seizure and must use his half-brother as a temporary chauffeur. In the meantime, Wetherhold clumsily tries to get involved with his doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) – a former student who had a bit of a crush on him years before.

Thanks to the two newcomers in his life, Wetherhold finally learns how to live and be happy – despite a whole series of rather hackneyed complications meant to make his epiphany seem harder earned than it really has to be.

Sadly, what starts out interesting and quirky all too quickly settles into well-worn storytelling paths – essentially leaving behind the gonzo intellectual vibe which made the film intriguing and different. Beyond the similarities to Wonder Boys, Smart People also has the misfortune to come out at about the same time as Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, which also treads this basic thematic ground with much more verve and imagination.

Which, again, is not to say that Smart People is bad. It tells an interesting story and has some appealing characters. However – like its protagonist – the movie just played it way too safely when it should have been taking chances. The professor himself would have probably graded his own life story with a B- or a C.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: August 30, 2008.

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