Deeper into Movies: "Smart People" (2008)

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page in Smart People
Courtesy of Bruce Birmelin / Miramax Films

A film that would’ve been better titled Misanthropic People, Smart People is half The Squid and the Whale and half Dan in Real Life, capturing neither the former’s authentic angst or the latter’s familial charm. The film narrates the declining fortunes of Lawrence Wetherhold (a bearded Dennis Quaid), an English professor at Carnegie Mellon notorious for not remembering students’ names. A widower terrified of sitting on the passenger side (the film spares you a car accident flashback), he’s saddled with a collegiate son (Ashton Holmes, whose haircut plays a bigger role than he does), a bad influence of an adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church, reprising his Sideways role with the addition of horrific facial hair) and a sharp-tongued Republican daughter (Ellen Page) who simultaneously idolizes and abhors him.

It’s not a comedy, exactly, though there’s plenty of laughter in the early Church-Page scenes before a moment of drunken, incestuous tension basically renders their relationship moot for the film’s second half. Still, it works better on that end than as a drama: the self-absorbed Wetherhold is unable make room for two in a new relationship with former student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), but neither their chemistry-free interactions nor his own limited soul-searching have enough depth or motive to draw sympathy. Various distractions, from Holmes’ girlfriend to Parker’s mercurial emotions, only confuse the issue. Everything from Page’s earth-tone sweaters to the frequent soft-focus shots to Nuno Bettencourt’s generic EZ-folk score seeks to place the film firmly in cuddly, feel-good indie territory, but a smarter screenwriter would’ve scripted characters easier to care about.


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