A doctor, a literature professor, and an over-achieving member of the Young Republicans walk into a bar…stop me if you’ve heard this one. Actually, stop me anyway. The joke is on the audience with Smart People, a cautionary tale about crushing the human spirit that’s been told many times before but rarely with such unsympathetic characters enduring such boring trials.
Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a teacher who would rather lecture to hall full of corpses than have to deal with the minimum human interaction required to actually teach his students. Despite the fact that a few people in his life tolerate him and the rest outright loathe him, he still spends most of his time worrying about looking stupid in front of them. His life pursuit is to publish his insultingly highbrow book, “The Price of Post Modernism Epistemology on Literary Canon”, and his self-centered, self-righteous lifestyle has almost entirely corrupted his idealistic daughter with his egotistical bitterness. Basically, he’s the kind of guy you love to hate.
Unfortunately, the entire movie depends on you caring whether or not he manages to pull his head out of his rear end and discover what’s left of his fleeting humanity. Sure, you might feel sorry for him because his wife died a few years ago, but otherwise it’s hard to find a reason to root for the guy. It’s far more entertaining to mock and despise him than it is to hope he comes out a better person, so when the end of the movie finally rolls around whatever success he’s achieved is almost disappointing.
But, it’s not the destination that’s important but the journey, right? Wetherhold’s voyage lacks gusto, but he’s surrounded by far more interesting characters who make it somewhat worthwhile. When the stuck-up professor has his driver’s license revoked, he’s forced to rely on his family to cart him around. Wetherhold’s slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who he never fails to point out is adopted, steps up to the plate in exchange for room and board. His chaotic snarkiness, topped with Church’s perfect dry wit, gives you an excuse to not hit the eject button.
Another force working on Wetherford is his doctor turned girlfriend Jane Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). For reasons beyond my comprehension, he manages to get her in the sack on a second date. If you’ve got bad judgment picking bedfellows, Hartigan is your hero. Parker pulls off her character’s disappointment in herself and the professor so well that you can’t help but expect she’ll be smart enough to walk away. But, like so many relationships, the two are brought together by the magic of a broken condom, yet another twist that brings little humor and somehow even less sympathy.
Vanessa (Ellen Page), Wetherford’s daughter, is so endeared to her father that she’s joined him on his path down the road to become a soulless, friendless intellectual drone. Uncle Chuck seems just as determined to breathe some joy into his dried up niece’s life, but his efforts are thwarted when she mistakenly decides he’s romantically attracted to her…and she feels the same way. It’s a creepy plotline that makes the movie that much harder to enjoy. Page is great in the role, but the youthful wise cracking smacks too much of her role in Juno. With only a couple of movies under her belt she’s already in danger of finding herself type-cast.
When you get right down to it Smart People is meant to be a story about a dysfunctional family hiding behind shrouds of hollow academia. The script has its witty moments, but so did the first season of “Dawson’s Creek”. That doesn’t mean it’s worth watching. What the movie lacks is heart, and without that the journey and the destination are both turned into little more than a sleepy punch line.
I was terrified that the disc’s bonus features would hide all sorts of gimmicky schticks like literary trivia or an IQ quiz. Pleasantly enough, the bonus features are few and straightforward. In fact, they’ve got more heart than the movie could have hoped for.
The sixth minutes worth of deleted scenes don’t add much to the story but if you want to watch even more wimpering and wallowing, here’s your chance. Frankly there are about five more minutes from the movie that should have ended up deleted, but when your cast features three Academy award nominees you have to be careful of what you cut.
Like any respectable comedy DVD, a blooper reel is included for good measure. It’s too short and features more of the actors laughing than things worth laughing at, but at least it made the list. It’s worth it just to see Church in an otherwise unseen bathtub scene and to hear Page zing one of her co-stars with a “you got nominated for an Oscar”?
Director Noam Murro and writer Mark Poirier grace the package with a commentary but if you didn’t enjoy the movie there’s nothing here to make it any better a second time around. You’ll pick up some interesting trivia, like the fact that this movie was made before Juno and that they jokingly figure she stole all her best stuff from them. If nothing else their voiceover offers some relief from the misplaced, incessant guitar strumming and plucking that passes itself off for the soundtrack.
A decent package for a disappointing movie, there’s just enough here for fans of the movie to enjoy, but little enough that people who don’t like it won’t miss much by sending it right back to Netflix once the credits role.