With a tagline that may seem relevant to Yalies, the newly released “Smart People,” directed by newcomer Noam Murro, makes the claim, “Sometimes smart people have the most to learn.” Slow-moving and uninspiring, the film’s tagline should read, “Sometimes smart people should learn to be more interesting.”
Class is in session with Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), the misanthropic and self-absorbed widower who alienates everyone with whom he interacts. When Wetherhold’s life is shaken up after a head injury prevents him from driving, his scam-artist adoptive brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) steps in to act as chauffer. Despite Wetherhold’s dislike for him (similar to his dislike for everyone), Chuck makes for a refreshing foil to his curmudgeonly brother.
While in the hospital, Wetherhold meets emergency room doctor and former student Janet Hardigan, (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom he unsurprisingly does not recognize. The two commence a rocky attempt at dating, despite the protests of his possessive daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). On the first date, Hardigan interrupts Wetherhold’s one-sided lecture on literary criticism, in another attempt to point out to Wetherhold that he is a pain in the ass. Wetherhold manages both not to get the message and to convince her to go on a second date. This begins a relationship in which Hardigan attempts to teach Wetherhold how to play with others.
The all-star cast struggles to act their way out of the pigeonholes dug by the script. Page in particular, playing the over-achieving high school student we all know, cannot overcome the stereotype. “These times are crucial — There’s Young Republicans, Model UN and I need the perfect score on the SAT,” she whines.
But the scenes between Page and Church provide the film’s most hilarious and original moments. Everyone likes to see the uptight overachiever get drunk. Few have seen a niece develop a schoolgirl crush on her uncle. It’s all part of her education in becoming less annoying.
Wetherhold’s son and brother are the only two characters who seem to notice that they populate a world of horrible people. It is no wonder that when Chuck has had enough of Vanessa and the professor, he escapes to his nephew’s dormitory. They are an enclave of sanity.
Quaid’s stereotyped character is as familiar as Ebenezer Scrooge. The plot, too, in which unpleasant people learn, through interactions with less unpleasant people, to be more pleasant, has been done before. It should not take long to play out what we all know is coming, yet with about eight montages set to folk guitar in which the characters sigh and look into the distance, the film’s ninety minutes feel like three hours.
About halfway through the movie, my friend leaned over and asked, “Why do I want these people to fail?” Though the movie has some funny moments, this is its biggest shortcoming: Wetherhold and company are so unpleasant, one wonders why we should care what happens to them. Sadly, we don’t.