It started with the white, beat-up Saab. That was the first character note we got on college professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid)—he drove it in the first scene—and I thought, “Hmmm, a bit of a cliché.” But I was willing to forgive it on grounds of, well, accuracy. (Have you checked out the employee parking lot of a liberal arts college lately?) Then, Lawrence parked his car—absent-mindedly? with disdain for the little people?—at an angle, over two spaces. A bit much, I thought. Then out came Quaid—bearded, beer-gutted, I swear I could detect a limp (more likely, it was just the dejected shuffled of the world weary), and I thought: Make it stop.
I’m sorry to report, these kinds of over-the-top (and overly familiar) character tics are all over Smart People, a film I really wanted to love, but simply couldn’t. Wetherhold’s daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) isn’t just a repressed over-achiever, she’s a Young Republican in a cableknit sweater who obsesses over the perfect SAT score. Wetherhold’s wayward adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) isn’t just a pot-smoking n’er do well, he’s a chronically broke slacker who is forced to live on Lawrence’s couch.
Actually, it’s Sarah Jessica Parker who fares best in what is, ironically, the least developed character—she’s a former student of Lawrence’s who still harbors a crush on him, despite the shell of a man he’s become since the death of his wife. (Of course there’s a dead wife. Was there ever any doubt?)
I point to The Squid in the Whale as an example of a film that does this “smart people are really stupid” stuff brilliantly. (And if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?). But I get the distinct impression that Smart People writer Mark Poirier has never met any actual smart people (okay, harsh, but you take my point). For starters, they don’t sit around discussing Victorian poetry. And, when they do, they’re actually engaged—hey, if Victorian poetry is your thing, it’s really your thing—not just reciting bookish passages with formal gravitas.
Indeed, Smart People can’t help but to remind us of other, better films. Not just The Squid and the Whale, but Juno (where we got to see Page in all her alt-teen glory) and Sideways (where Haden Church’s man-child persona worked to great effect). As for Quaid, thankfully he’s never played such a sad-sack wretch before. And here’s hoping he never does again.