HOLLYWOOD — “Smart People” isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, despite some wickedly snappy dialogue. Novelist-turned-screenwriter Mark Poirier gives the capable, eclectic cast some real zingers to play with, but he also loads his script with some plot contrivances that are simply too hard to accept.
Dennis Quaid plays against type as acerbic, self-absorbed English professor Lawrence Wetherhold, who infamously has forgotten the names of his students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for decades.
A bump on the head he suffers while trying to get his car out of the campus impound lot (again) lands him in the hospital, where the chief emergency room doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), just happens to be one of his former students. Naturally, he doesn’t remember her either, even though she harbored a schoolgirl crush on him. (Inexplicably, she also held onto the freshman essay on which he gave her a C several years ago.)
At the same time, his scam-artist adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), just happens to show up and move in with Lawrence and his teenage daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), a Young Republican who’s obsessed with getting into Stanford. Lawrence also has a son, a Carnegie Mellon student (Ashton Holmes) who lives in the dorms and doesn’t get much to do.
Longtime commercial director Noam Murro keeps things moving along at a decent clip in his feature debut, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen this kind of indie dysfunctional-family comedy countless times before. There are also more than a few shades of the superior “Wonder Boys” in here, with its competitive academic setting and self-destructive characters. Quaid’s Lawrence is just as screwed-up as Michael Douglas was in that film, he just doesn’t know it.
All these figures will clearly shape Lawrence for the better, but not without some major resistance from this rumpled, middle-aged blowhard. And they’re all viciously verbal, so they’re up for the challenge of sparring with him — and each other. Chuck urges Lawrence to go out with Janet — and more: “You spend $50 on dinner, that’s grounds for intercourse.”
He also inspires some stirrings in the uptight Vanessa, getting her high and drunk when she should be studying. She’s the kind of girl whose mantra is: “You should really make your bed, it sets the tone for the whole day.” Even though the character is far more politically and socially conservative than Juno MacGuff, the role that earned Page an Oscar nomination and made her an instant star, they’re similar enough in terms of quick-witted temperament and deadpan delivery that you do wonder what other kinds of characters she’s capable of inhabiting.
But the person who has the most influence on him, ostensibly, is Janet — though it’s hard to believe they’d ever get together. The age difference, about a decade, isn’t the problem. The fact that they have no chemistry, and that Lawrence doesn’t appear to have the vaguest glimmer of humanity or potential for redemption, is, and you’ll question what she sees in him. Parker certainly has strong enough comic timing that she’s comfortable bantering with Quaid, they just seem like an ill fit for each other.
The way their relationship evolves also may be difficult to believe, but “Smart People” does end smartly on a subtly lovely up note.
“Smart People,” a Miramax Films release, is rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality. Running time: 90 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.