“You’re not happy… and you’re my role model.”
The 95 minute drama Smart People has great characters, intelligent plotlines, and is peppered with real-life comedy. Dennis Quaid stars as college professor Lawrence Wetherhold, a recent widower who has a growing romantic interest in Dr. Janet Hartigan, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Quaid’s low key, concentrated performance cements the film’s theme where academic intelligence and social ineptness force some characters to improve their behavior and overall view of life. Lawrence’s growing self-absorption over the years provides a strong character background. Parker seems a bit miscast, but handles the material fairly well.
Ellen Page plays Vanessa, Lawrence’s daughter who definitely has something to say about her dad’s new love interest. Adding to the family household is Lawrence’s slacker brother Chuck, played by Thomas Haden Church. Chuck’s underachieving antics seemingly pale next to a professional teacher, a doctor, and an over-achieving high schooler who just aced her SATs, but he provides some important pieces for this repairing family. These four actors do a fine job taking center stage while a couple of characters get pushed to the background: Lawrence’s talented yet low-key son James is played by Ashton Holmes; Lawrence’s assistant Nancy is played by Christine Lahti, who stars in a thankless supporting role.
First time feature film director Noam Murro mixes melancholy music and Pittsburgh settings to bring some nice authenticity to the film, which feels like a documentary at times. This approach makes the comedy pleasantly unforced. Murro also allows several interior shots of the family’s house to soak into the viewers' minds as they can quickly understand how Lawrence’s late wife affected everyone. Characters even provide some realistic one-liners, which provide the biggest laughs. The best one is a student’s comeback to Lawrence when he’s at his son’s dormitory (related to a previous key scene). The fairly predictable plot puts the characters in realistic situations without too much stress or drama. The only twist creates some cringe-inducing thoughts initially but, as do the characters, the filmmakers handle the situation intelligently and logically.
The mostly conventional plot has emotional life lessons created from some dynamic social experiences. The characters make this experiences more enjoyable as they intelligently discuss each issue instead of making improbable assumptions and instantly yelling at each other like so many other family-centered dramas. Recommended with reservations and rated R for language, brief teen drug/alcohol use, and some sexuality. Extra features include the clip-heavy “Smartest People” featurette, deleted scenes and “not so smart” bloopers. Murro and screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier provide the optional commentary. Also available on Blu-ray.