Given its setting (Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon), Smart People is likely to be compared to Curtis Hanson's superior Wonder Boys, but as an animal unto itself. First-time screenwriter-novelist Mark Jude Poirer and first-time director Noam Murro deliver a film that's funny, sharply observed and consistently engaging.
While watching Dennis Quaid go from being a condescending asshole to less of an asshole in 90 minutes may not sound like the most dramatic of tales, Smart People does a damn good job of creating characters worth caring about. Which is tougher than you might think, given that most of them aren't particularly likable. Good thing they've attracted a quartet of top-notch actors.
When misanthropic college lit professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) suffers a seizure, he's stripped of his driver's license for six months and agrees to take in his unreliable (but not uncaring) adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) to help out. Since the death of his wife (yes, he still keeps her clothes in the closet), Lawrence's overachieving teenage Young Republican daughter (Ellen Page) has stepped in as house-mom to the extreme detriment of her social life. So, Chuck tries to loosen her up a bit (with uncomfortable results), while Lawrence tries to court a former student (Sarah Jessica Parker), who became a physician after his scathing criticisms of her work drove her away from literature. Somewhere on the periphery is a college-age son (Ashton Holmes) who both Lawrence and the film cruelly neglect.
As an actor, Quaid seems to get better as he gets more rumpled. Bearded and paunchy, he fully embraces Wetherhold's soured psyche, convincingly radiating self-loathing and contempt. He's mordantly self-absorbed yet tragically endearing, rescuing the film from its gradual slide toward dysfunctional sentimentalism. Similarly, Parker finds the right balance between sweet and soulful, to make their unlikely romance credible.
But it's Page and Haden Church who shine brightest, putting Smart People in serious danger of presenting supporting characters that are more interesting than the leads. Playing to their obvious strengths, the two not only have terrific comic chemistry but temper it with real human longing. While Haden Church might be typecast in the role of the self-deprecating wise-fool, his timing is impeccable. Page, on the other hand, buttons up her motormouth quirk and demonstrates that Juno wasn't some flash in the pan. She poignantly presents the kind of precocious adolescence that's created by disappointment and estrangement, while proving to be a master of deadpan irony.
Though writer Poirier clearly knows how to create engaging three-dimensional characters, he has much to learn about storytelling. Scene for scene, there's plenty to admire here, yet little adds up. There's a theatrical isolation to the interludes that fails to push the story forward with any urgency, and so the shift from biting, understated comedy to poignant drama feels synthetic and the hasty ending unearned. The film would have been better served had Poirier dug deeper into his characters, letting the plot turns come from internal revelation rather than external contrivance.
Still, this is a fittingly smart movie that makes the point that intelligence has little to do with self-awareness or happiness. Though its thinly plotted tale is a little lead-footed when it comes to quirk, Smart People has enough zingy banter, emotional insight and shaggy charm to warrant a look.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.