We’ve all known “smart people.” Whether they’re actually smart, assuming that kind of thing exists in an objective sense, or, more likely, they think they’re smart is of little consequence, because a person who defines him or herself solely by an intellectual yardstick is often drunk with an entitlement they believed earned by their very existence. People like this are unbearable, oblivious to their rampant deficiencies as normal human beings; they’re in love with yet completely unfamiliar with themselves, living in perpetual fear of self-actualization.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is such a person, the kind of recherché fuckbag who can be found at any university. Wetherhold is an English professor utterly reviled by his students, colleagues, and random passersby, a man so smug, so pedagogical he makes everyone around him look like an ass for not kicking him in the face whenever he opens his mouth. Wetherhold flits about with his nose upturned, greeting the disappointments of his life as sheer incredulities instead of personal indictments: he can’t find a publisher for his pedantic book; he can’t understand why everyone (including his son) seems to hate him; and he has no idea why he’s so fucking unhappy.
Quaid renders Wetherhold a bit too simply, making him a popinjay who’s probably too loathsome to exist — he pronounces every word as if it’s an orgasmic delicacy and arches his eyebrows with each syllable. Quaid was obviously making certain the audience would react to Wetherhold with requisite loathing, but the character is an overblown representation of snootiness with neither depth nor subtlety. That Wetherhold’s superciliousness masks a profound sense of insecurity and loneliness as a result of his wife’s death is likely, but the issue is never adequately explored.
Wetherhold’s life gets shaken up a bit after a chance injury: his deadbeat, freeloading, adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in, ostensibly to help out. Comic relief ensues — Church’s character is a lackadaisical goof, a foil to Quaid’s seriousness and little else. He promptly annoys everyone around him by trying to inject some color into the family’s dysfunctional monochrome. Daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), who worships her father and is following in his dyspeptic footsteps, is strangely drawn to Chuck’s disarray, but this is another one-dimensional relationship which offers little in the way of comedy or emotion. Page is, as usual, channeling the same youthful sassmouth which made her a hit in Juno, but her character has nothing more to add than that and nowhere to go.
Smart People has a nominal story arc involving Wetherhold’s bumbling romance with a doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who was one of his old students, and whose career in medicine was partially begat by Wetherhold’s spurning. The relationship, like everything else in the damn movie, is tepid and barely believable, a plot vehicle for curing Wetherhold of his distemper without bothering to rouse pathos or chemistry between Quaid and Parker.
Smart People is definitely one of the most middling films I’ve seen in a while: the comedy, the drama, the romance, the characters, the story, are all as insipid as gnat’s piss. And yet the film is impossible to hate — it doesn’t fail any more than it doesn’t succeed. There’s just nothing here that’s new, or interesting, or even mildly perceptive. There should’ve been enough material in the film for a pleasant character-study, especially given the fine ensemble cast, but nobody mines it; short shrift is given to an already narrow narrative. Smart People is neither worth watching, nor worth avoiding.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).
Smart People / Phillip Stephens
Film | April 14, 2008 | Comments ()