Smart people in movies usually fall into one of two categories: the unforgivable, self-important asshole who will doom us all with his over-reliance on crazy things like science and facts, or the social (and sometimes physical) retard who knows a lot about math but is obviously too stupid to understand how to be a person. Making smart people seem somehow inferior to the rest of us I guess is supposed to make dumb people, the people who compose the vast majority of Hollywood’s audience, feel better. Smart People dabbles with characters who might fit into the latter category, but quickly proves the people within it are something more.
Sure at first professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is sort of a self-important dick, but it’s not because his brain is so crammed full of facts that he can’t pay attention to the real world. There’s more to him than that, and as Smart People takes us inside his family he turns into, shockingly, a real person. He’s also brilliant, and uses a lot of big words. So does just about everyone in his family, which will undoubtedly doom this movie to an extremely short run in theaters followed by quick trip to the bargain bin on DVD.
That’s a shame, since Quaid gives an amazing performance as Wetherhold; completely throwing himself into the role of an aged, pot-bellied misanthrope, shutting himself off from the world after judging it utterly unworthy of his intellect. He lumbers around the college campus where he’s tenured, grousing about his underappreciated genius. It’s not self-delusion, Wetherhold really is a brilliant literary mind, and as the film moves along we discover he’s not really a dick, just a guy locked inside his own head and grieving for a long dead wife.
His daughter is as brilliant and miserable as he is. Ellen Page plays Vanessa, putting her talent for heavy dialogue to work as an acerbic, pent-up teen whom her uncle fears is turning into a robot. Her uncle Chuck is the family’s black sheep, her father’s adopted brother and one of those guys who can never seem to hang on to a job. When Lawrence has an accident and finds himself unable to drive, Chuck worms his way into their lives by promising to play limo driver, minus the funny hat. While Chuck lays around the house playing the cool uncle, Lawrence considers romance with a doctor he met in the E.R., played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the first good thing she’s done since leaving Sex and the City.
The cast is every bit as brilliant as their characters are smart, and they carry the movie from beginning to end. Smart People feels real and it’s sweet. It’s occasionally funny and frequently touching. It’s missing some of the real highs and lows you’d expect in a film like this, but nearly makes up for it by simply being consistently well thought out. Smart People isn’t only the movie’s title, or even a definition of its characters, it’s also a pretty good description of its target audience. It starts with those lame, smart people stereotypes I mentioned at the outset, and then tosses them overboard as the characters within Mark Poirier’s script become developed through well thought out dialogue and intelligent interaction. Ellen Page fans looking for the next Juno are likely to be disappointed, because the movie goes beyond the usual comedic quips and quirks and delivers something with heart, at least for an audience with any smarts.