Smart People
Starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden
Church, Ellen Page
Directed by Noam Murro
Rated R

Dysfunctional families are nothing new in American
entertainment. Sitcoms from All in the Family to The Simpsons are
founded on clueless patriarchs, bedraggled mothers, and their motley
spawn.

But
lately film is having a run on families defined by bickering ennui. The
Savages
, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and
now Smart People chronicle the lives of unhappy academics and assorted
eggheads.

The
principal contention of such films is that the smarty-britches set is knee-deep
in misery. These abject screen academics dwell in colorless professional and
personal worlds, residents of forlorn places like Pittsburgh or Buffalo, where
the gray skies and perpetual winter advertise their pain and angst.

Lawrence
Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is an archetypal movie academic. He’s a middle-aged
sadsack in a corduroy blazer with a soft, sagging middle who harbors a profound
disdain for the students he teaches. His meetings with fellow academics resemble
a quorum of undertakers more than anything: a group of pasty, joyless scolds
who rail about “the subjugation of women” and seethe with professional
jealousy. But there is no spark of life to these scenes in the Academy; nothing
to suggest these are real people with real problems.

So
how do we know Lawrence is smart people? Because Noam Murro (in his directorial
debut after a successful career making commercials) won’t let us forget it.

Lawrence
is smart because he pontificates about Victorian literature.

Characters
accuse him countless times of being pompous and arrogant.

He
plays Scrabble.

Too
much smarts equals sadness in so many movies, as if the ever-present plaintive
guitar-strumming on the soundtrack didn’t warn you. Lawrence’s braniac burden
is magnified by the death of his wife years ago. The pall cast by that death
hangs over Lawrence and his entire family: his surly but nondescript Carnegie
Mellon undergrad son James (Ashton Holmes), but mostly his unhappy
Stanford-bound Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a right-wing
spin on Page’s equally deadpan, blue-state Juno. The only source of levity is
Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a sporadically employed
pot-smoking goofus. Chuck moves in with the family to chauffeur Lawrence after
an accident that has left Lawrence unable to drive.

Like
so much in Smart People, screenwriter and novelist Mark Poirier
overcooks this complicating incident. Poirier has a tendency to throw in every
plot twist and bit of slapstick he can get his hands on, turning the
proceedings into a gooey mess. He piles on the incidents: Lawrence begins to
date the emergency room doctor Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) who treats him
after his accident. She also happens to be a former student who can’t get over
the “C” Lawrence gave her years ago.

Peeking
out from her artfully disheveled hair, Parker’s doctor lady is hard to
distinguish from her Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, slinking down
hospital corridors in her pencil skirts and bedroom hair. Intelligence is a
liability in Smart People, because it keeps these people locked in their
heads unable to experience joy. The only truly happy character is Chuck, an
irresponsible “toddler” in Lawrence’s words, but a contented toddler. As is the
wont of such stories, key people must unlock Lawrence and Vanessa’s emotional
prison doors. Janet punctures Lawrence’s wall of snotty disdain, though many
may have a hard time buying them as a couple. And Chuck, in several weirdly
unpleasant scenes, gets his 17-year-old niece stoned (“Great. I’m in an
‘Afterschool Special,’” Vanessa quips) and then drunk in order to help her
overcome her nerdy solitude.

Smart
People
is most often reminiscent of Noah Baumbach’s tales of cranky,
neurotic academics (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding)
— people too smart for their own good. But Baumbach approaches his
characters’ misery with insight and even affection.

Murro
tends to deal in surfaces. It’s hard to get a sense of the human beings beneath
the cardboard facades. And Poirier favors clever, snappy lines that often
garner laughs, but at the expense of character development.

Smart
People
looks at its unhappy eggheads like bugs in a jar. We never get
close. We may not want to.