Dropkicking the suffix “ass” from what would otherwise be a more shrewdly titled movie, if not story, Smart People is too self-conscious and knowing to come across as anything other than smug. Being a single father widower (without further explanation, mom died “years ago”), wearing corduroy sport jackets, and driving a Saab are not benevolent license enough to indulge in a domestic and professional degree of self-absorption that’s more than mildly off-putting. Who wants to know these people and can even the like-minded want to go out of their way to spend an hour and a half with them?
The patriarch of these sanctimonious smart people is Lawrence Wetherhold (a vulnerable looking Dennis Quaid), an English Lit professor at Carnegie Mellon University. When we become acquainted with the Wetherholds, it’s the fall of the year — all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. The forecast is not much different indoors. It becomes quickly apparent that for the Wetherholds, facade-al intellectualism is the force field behind which domestic anti-bliss festers.
Lawrence Wetherhold is father to a college-age son named James (Ashton Holmes) dorming at Carnegie, and to a precocious 17-year-old daughter named Vanessa — a member of the Young Republicans — played by Juno’s (2007) Ellen Page, studying for the SAT and applying for admission to elite colleges across the country. A movie that masquerades in exploring relationships, Quaid’s Lawrence and Page’s Vanessa form the central (father-daughter) one. Not unlike most teenagers, Smart People wants to be so independent and quirkily different that it’s conformist and predictable.
Specifically, the 21-year-old Canadian Page is quickly cornering the market on smarmy teenage know-it-all. Her motherless Vanessa overachieves in every phase of her life, academically — her bedroom walls being covered with blue ribbons and framed certificates — male relationships, and even in domestic chores like cooking. In no particular order, she is daughter and mom. Not surprisingly, she has no peers, but, she has no soul either. (“I think self-absorption’s underrated”). We’ll be the judge of that, won’t we? This time around, Page’s deadpan disposition doesn’t do much to reveal a sympathetic Vanessa — her fears, motives, or dreams.
And then there’s Professor Lawrence himself.
Smart People’s plot drops when he falls from the top of a fence after retrieving his briefcase from his impounded car. The mishap results in a trauma-induced seizure. (Head) Spinning on what might more aptly be called Regarding Lawrence, rather than Henry (1991), the fundamental difference being his egomania is still intact, leaving him the same prick he was before.
Lawrence requires a trip to the ER. The prognosis? He can’t drive for six months, necessitating his unwilling transportation dependency on his daughter and freeloading bachelor brother — and soon to be chauffeur — Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who (un)conveniently volunteers to move in to help around the house. Not a blessing in disguise for Lawrence.
The fateful fall has led Lawrence to cross paths with Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), the ER doctor treating him. We’re to believe – in the immortal words of game show host Chuck Woolery – a love connection has been made. It’s obvious in about “two [minutes] and two [seconds]” that Quaid and Parker set off no cardiac sparks between each other — Janet was Professor Wetherhold’s undergraduate student ten years ago. Previously unresolved closure looms.
Janet M.D., weakly serving as the audience’s de facto common sense compass, detects a missing arrhythmia as early as their first dinner date, which she ends abruptly because Lawrence won’t stop droning on about himself. She’s sees him and his family for what they are — pretentious people, not as smart as they think they are. (“You’re the same pompous windbag who made me switch my major from English to Biology”). You never get a second chance to make a first impression, advice Janet doesn’t heed.
Back home, Vanessa and her uncle Chuck are engaged in an altogether different, though equally clumsy, relationship. It’s a cutesy case of role reversal because she is the pseudo-adult, and he’s the arrested-developed, ne’er-do-well uncle. Sense the boundless potential for affectional bonding in this unconventional couple? It comes off almost as weird as it sounds. She tries unsuccessfully to kiss Chuck on the lips, he successfully takes her to a bar and gets her drunk. The family that strays together, stays together. Or something like that.
In a parallel universe, this might have been true were it not so transparently calculating.
A bearded Quaid acquits himself in a respectable manner. An always physically fit looking performer, his perpetually adorned sweater-vests-and-slacks professor manages to convey a beaten down, disheveled look, sporting a subtly descending pooch belly and three-dimensional bags under his eyes.
Following his appointment to chair the search committee charged with anointing the next Carnegie English Department Head, you almost feel sympathy for him when he vainly nominates himself for the position. Almost.