The characters in "Smart People" are an intellectual sort, yes, but more than one of them are just as inept when it comes to social interaction and functional human relationships. Hiding behind sarcastic veneers or plain, old highfalutin pomposity, they are reluctant to take a look at themselves and admit how needful they really are of a little compassion and empathy in their lives. Their journey toward recognizing this truth is at the forefront of this engaging, good-humored slice-of-life. Directed by Noam Murro and written by Mark Jude Poirier (both making their debuts), the film is light on plot and urgency, but aided by four wonderful performances.
When college literature professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) suffers a self-induced concussion and seizure, he is stripped of his driver's license and agrees to take in adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a wayward sort who proves to not be of as much assistance as Lawrence would like. As Chuck takes an active interest in Lawrence's overachieving, proudly Republican stick-in-the-mud daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), Lawrence dips his toes into the dating pool for the first time since the death of his wife. His romance with physician and former student Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) starts off rocky and only gets marginally better as he comes to find he's not nearly as adept in relating to other people as he is in talking about himself. This, unfortunately, includes the distance he has placed between himself and his somewhat neglected children, daughter Vanessa and college-aged son James (Ashton Holmes).
"Smart People" isn't the kind of film that will blow minds. Low-key and character-centric, the picture doesn't particularly go anywhere that isn't predictable, but it is in the perceptive treatment of its various subplots where it retains a certain level of classiness. Dialogue is peppy and acerbicwhen Lawrence attempts to regrade the "C" paper he once gave Janet years before and ends up sticking with his original assessment, Janet tells him that his uncouth description of her writing was, "As rambling as a bad folk song"while the ensemble of characters manage to stay interesting people even when their actions aren't always likable. It's not that they're purposefully nasty or arrogant, mind you, only that they are ill-equipped to deal with their place in a family that hasn't been chummy for quite some time.
The mid-life crisis that Lawrence faces isn't a whole lot different from the role Dennis Quaid played in 2004's "In Good Company
." At a personal and professional crossroads, Lawrence little by little sees the damage he has done to his relationships with his children, as well as the lack of attention and faith he has given the revolving door of college students he's been teaching for years. Quaid is just right for this part, sad-eyed and adrift as he receives a much-needed reality check. As unreliable but not uncaring brother Chuck, Thomas Haden Church's alternately laid-back and high-strung turn reminds of his career comeback role in 2004's "Sideways
Ellen Page (2007's "Juno
") adds another masterful performance to her quickly growing résumé as Vanessa, an outcast teenager who seemingly knows it allshe gets a perfect score on her SATs, or close to itand yet knows very little about letting loose and making friends. Page is both comically tart and underlyingly touching. As Lawrence's love interest Janet, Sarah Jessica Parker (2006's "Failure to Launch
") is lovely as always, blessing her character with initially unanticipated complexity and vulnerability. Of all the main actors, Ashton Holmes (2005's "A History of Violence
") has the least to do as James. Holmes is fine, but James is superfluous to the rest of the film and his relationship with father Lawrence is the one left dangling by the end credits.
"Smart People" might have done better had its story strands been opened up and more smoothly interwoven. As it is, scenes exist within self-contained bubbles and usually play out in a one-on-one fashion, almost like something one would view on a stage. Still, the writing is nicely restrained and conflicts satisfyingly work themselves out without becoming sappy or overly tidy. This is a smart film about smart people, as the title promises, but they are also humanely flawed. Like all of us, they don't hold the key to life's questions and dilemmas, and all the intelligence in the world isn't going to change that.