BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 11, 2008
The title of the film Smart People seems almost a dare to critics: Can you make it through your entire review without calling the movie “stupid”? Alas, it isn’t easy. Ostensibly a seriocomic tale about coping with loss and finding a balance between ambition and decency, Smart People is, for the most part, a sour and thoughtless bore.
Carnegie-Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widower who has not yet come to terms with his wife’s death several years ago. Entrenched behind an angry beard and unpersuasive paunch (seriously, it looks like he has a throw pillow tucked under there), he grouses, sneers, and belittles his way through interactions with colleagues, students, and his own family: precocious 17-year-old daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), college-student son James (Ashton Holmes), and middle-aged adopted brother and ne’er-do-well Chuck (Thomas Haden Church).
There is of course a fine cinematic tradition of supercilious misanthropes, ranging from George Sanders’s Addison DeWitt in All About Eve to Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. But Quaid’s Lawrence breaks the mold by displaying virtually no sign of charm, wit, or even particular intelligence. He is merely a surly and resentful lout in whose company we are invited to spend the better part of an hour and a half.
After his illegally parked car is towed, Lawrence suffers a concussion trying to climb over the fence of the impound lot; when he regains consciousness, his pretty E.R. doc, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), tells him that, as a precautionary measure, he will not be allowed to drive a car for six months. Enter slacker brother Chuck, who offers to chauffeur Lawrence around in exchange for a bed to flop in. Ensconced chez Wetherhold, Chuck quickly becomes an agent of drowsy chaos amid the regimented anality of Lawrence and young overachiever Vanessa--a Yang to their Yin. The first time he and Vanessa hang out together, he introduces the uptight teen to the joys of cannabis; the second time, to the joys of public drunkenness. (“What is it like to be stupid?” she charmingly asks a fellow barfly.)
Lawrence, meanwhile, schemes self-importantly to become the chair of his department, to publish a combative book on critical theory, and to get Janet--who, it turns out, was once a student of his with a schoolgirl crush--to sleep with him. This she eventually does, though it’s hard to imagine why. Perhaps it was the only way she could envision to make him stop pontificating. And so the movie goes from there, unfurling the inevitable tropes about learning to be a nicer person, opening oneself to new experiences, recognizing the value of family, and so on. Where’s that Cloverfield monster when you need him?
Ellen Page does the best she can as a teen automaton who wants her Dad to stop holding onto Mom’s old clothes because if he donates them to charity they’ll get a tax write-off, “which is pretty cool.” But this pitiless caricature of Young Republicanhood is meant for broader farce, not a dreary dramedy like Smart People. As it is, it’s hard to shake the impression of Juno MacGuff offering an ironic portrait of Tracy Flick. Meanwhile, Sarah Jessica Parker, who not long ago found herself uncomfortably absorbed into a boyfriend’s liberal nightmare clan in The Family Stone, here explores a conservative counterpart which, while no less irritating, at least has fewer members.
Chuck, the lazy interloping brother, is a tired cinematic type, but it is a tired cinematic type to which Thomas Haden Church brings genuine charm and humor. Casting him in the role was the filmmakers’ wisest choice; outfitting him with an absurd gunfighter’s moustache and goatee, their second wisest. Sadly, the cramped and crabby film seems to wear him down as well, and after a drunken misunderstanding that’s taken far more seriously than it ought to be, he largely vacates the premises.
First-time screenwriter Mark Poirier and first-time director Noam Murro struggle with tone and pace. Much of the dialogue is intended to be funny, but not much of it actually is. (The two biggest laughs in the screening I attended were shots of Chuck’s bare ass as he slept.) At 95 minutes, the film has a clipped, rushed feel, as if a large amount of material was cut, particularly toward the (very abrupt) conclusion. Indeed, there’s an odd sense of stinginess thoughout: Though a single coed (Camille Mana) is repeatedly repurposed--as a student is Lawrence’s class; as James’s girlfriend; as a member of the department search committee--I’m not sure we ever even learn her first name.
But Smart People’s central shortcoming is its central character, Lawrence. Though virtually everyone in the film comments on how brilliant he is, this alleged brilliance is at no time in evidence. (Shades of Diane Keaton’s ditzy master playwright in Something’s Gotta Give.) Yes, Lawrence will occasionally correct someone else’s grammar or vocabulary, and there are a few instances when the movie plops us into the middle of a conversation for a few seconds of jargon or name dropping, in order to telegraph that Something Smart has been taking place. (Lawrence: “‘So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.’” Janet: “William Carlos Williams.” Lawrence: “He was a physician.” Janet: “I know.”) But in the entire film there’s not a single meaningful conversation or exchange of ideas, no hint of why anyone would consider Lawrence so gifted--and thus tolerate him--beyond the film’s constant assertions that he just is, okay?
The premise of Smart People is that even a complete jerk can have an attractive mind, that even a pedant may sometimes have insights to share. But the movie never grants us access to Lawrence’s mind, and wouldn’t know an insight if it was tattooed on Thomas Haden Church’s ass. Though Smart People pokes fun at Vanessa’s quest for a perfect SAT result, in the end it shares her premise that intelligence is just a test score or book contract, that knowing William Carlos Williams wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” or that an “eft” is a juvenile newt is what constitutes being smart. And that’s just plain stupid.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.