If first-time director Noam Murro’s Smart People were nearly as smart as it thinks it is, it would be something. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The easiest way to describe Smart People is to call it The Squid and the Whale lite, and even that probably gives it too much credit. It’s not that the film is unwatchable. It’s simply and completely inconsequential. That would matter less if those responsible for it didn’t so obviously think Smart People is very profound indeed. All in all, I’d say it’s slightly less profound than Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)—and a lot less funny.
What we have here is your basic dysfunctional-family indie comedy. You’ve seen it before—maybe with a different set of quirks, tics, mannerisms and its hair parted differently, but you have seen it. This round we have Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a grumpy, crusty, self-absorbed Carnegie Mellon English professor with dead-wife issues and neglected children. (Hey, if he joined the LAPD his character could be combined with that of Keanu’s in another of this week’s distractions, Street Kings.)
Of the children, there’s son James (Ashton Holmes, A History of Violence), who’s so neglected that the movie often seems to forget about him entirely. It’s understandable, since he lives on campus, writes poetry and harbors a dark secret that’s neither very dark nor very secret. More to the point, there’s daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page, Juno), an overachiever zomboid whiz kid who for some obscure reason (one that I can’t figure out) is a card-carrying member of a Young Republicans group. In fact, she may be the Young Republicans group, since we never see her with any of the other members. Someone told me that Vanessa was doing this to “act out,” but since her political bent doesn’t seem to bother her father, I’m not sure how this is acting out. I know if I had a daughter who stuck pictures of Ronald Reagan up in her bedroom and cited Dick Cheney as a role model, I’d be converting to Catholicism so I could get myself a good exorcist. Old Prof. Wetherhold doesn’t even seem to notice. That’s actually par for the course in Smart People, where people appear to have no reasons for their actions beyond the dictates of the script.
Anyway, the family’s dreary existence changes when Wetherhold suffers a blow to the head that brings him into contact with ER doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who still harbors a crush on him. Alas, because the head injury caused a seizure, Wetherold is forbidden to drive for six months. Enter shiftless adopted-brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who—being out of work and money and ambition—opts to act as chauffeur. Of course, Chuck is of the quirky variety, and being such he gets Vanessa stoned and drunk in an attempt to loosen her up. Naturally, he loosens her up too much, and she develops a crush on him, which she views as OK seeing as how he’s not a blood relative. Not surprisingly, Chuck is horrified.
Meanwhile, Wetherhold improbably hooks up with Janet for what may be the dreariest romance in the history of cinema. All of this is served up with an excruciating singer-songwriter score courtesy of Nuno Bettencourt. It sounds alarmingly like stuff you’d hear coming from some way-too-full-of-himself sophomore in the lunch court of a college campus five days a week. Then again, perhaps this fits a way-too-full-of-itself movie.
The only saving grace lies in Thomas Haden Church’s performance, whose character—not coincidentally—is also the closest thing to fully formed. Near as I can tell, the conclusion the film finally reaches is that it’s OK to be smart, but not too smart, and that an unplanned pregnancy will fix everything. I remain skeptical on both counts. Rated R for language, sexuality, drug use and underage drinking.