Doodad Kind of Town

"Smart People"
April 17, 2008, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Romantic Comedies

About two minutes into “Smart People,” I started to wonder why college literature professors in movies are always arrogant, emotionally stunted pricks. Wouldn’t it be a kick if once – just once– they made a movie about a college professor who was a really great guy? One who had a stable emotional life and good relationships with his spouse and kids and who was really liked by his students? I’m sure those people exist in real life, but they’re pretty damn hard to find on celluloid.

Well, within those first two minutes, you find out that “Smart People” won’t be that kind of movie. Like his predecessors in films like “Wonder Boys,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and “The Savages,” Dennis Quaid’s character (Lawrencce Wetherhold, a Carnegie-Mellon professor of Victorian literature) is a self-absorbed, pompous windbag who doesn’t get on well with anyone.

What almost redeems “Smart People” (‘almost’ being the operative term here) is its honest observations that 1)college professors aren’t the only people who are self-absorbed and emotionally stunted; and 2) sometimes, self-absorbed windbags know they’re self-absorbed windbags and feel real pain about it.

After his car is towed (for parking illegally across two parking spaces, his usual habit), Wetherhold attempts to break into the lot where the car is being held by scaling the fence. He falls and hits his head, which triggers a seizure, and he ends up in the emergency room where his doctor is the comely Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). Hartigan is a former student, but Wetherhold doesn’t recognize her. (Not surprisingly, since he barely recognizes the students he currently teaches.) Unable to drive after the seizure, Wethehold must enlist his ne’er do well brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) to be his chauffeur; his uptight, acid-tongued, Young Republican daughter, Vanessa(Ellen Page), is too busy studying for her SATs to take on the job.

So Chuck moves into the Wetherhold household, introduces Vanessa to pot and beer and tries – none too successfully – to loosen her up. Meanwhile, Lawrence begins an awkward romance with Janet. What follows is not predictable, and I will grudgingly give props to writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Munro for that. The standard choice would have been for Janet to be the emotionally open, nurturing and forgiving woman who brings Lawrence to life, but instead, Janet turns out to be a bit difficult herself. The relationship develops in fit and starts, largely due to Janet’s passive-aggressive and withholding nature.

Meanwhile, Lawrence emerges as an ever more sympathetic character as we begin to see how deeply he is still grieving for his late wife, and how much pain his own behavior causes him. Although the other three main characters continue to operate with the understanding that Lawrence is the one with the problems, it becomes ever clearer that their behavior towards him is often insensitive and casually cruel.

Props are given grudgingly to Poirer and Munro, however, because while I admire what they attempted to do here, it isn’t all that interesting to watch. My friend, Mary Anne, who saw “Smart People” with me, put it very succinctly:”These characters are stunted and the movie is stunted, too.” You keep waiting for a chemistry to develop between characters, for one blistering or heartbreaking exchange of dialogue that sharpens and illuminates your understanding of the characters. And it never comes to fruition. Instead, “Smart People” just keeps muddling along from one well-intentioned-but-half-baked scene to the next.

It’s a shame, too, because these four actors are talented people who could have used a surer directorial hand. Hayden Church falls back on his lovable stoner persona fairly successfully, but we’ve seen that before. And I won’t be the first to note that Page basically plays Juno McGuff as Young Republican, and it’d be nice to see something different from her, too. I had trouble believing Parker as an emergency room doctor, although she does capture a certain prickliness in her character which works well. And Quaid falls pretty far short of the gold standard set for this kind of role by Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale.” He sports all the right profesorial affectations (beard, paunch, and an awkward, shuffling kind of walk), and gets at the emotional depth of the character, but I never once believed he was a real academic.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for the welcome to LAMB.Really glad you liked the post, hope you’ve had a chance to see the Strangers on a Train, when you do let me know what you think.I really like your blog, I’ve added you to my links. Look forward to your next post.

Comment by Ibetolis

Hi Pat, Sadly, SJP’s movies usually ALWAYS let me down. I will probably watch “Smart People” when it comes on cable in a few months.You know who plays a good, non windbag type Professor? Robin Williams. I loved him in “Dead Poet’s Society” and in “Good Will Hunting”. He was an odd professor, but a kind one too.See you tomorrow!

Comment by Parisjasmal

ibetolis – Glad you stopped in. I want to get to “Strangers on a Train” soon, but my DVR is so backed up! I’ll be anxious to discuss it when I get to it. I’ll be adding your blog link today.PJ – Ah, yes – Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” is a good example of an intellectual character with a heart. I wish there were more. Looking forward to tomorrow night!

Comment by Pat

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