Smart people should give "Smart People" a wary eye

By Tatiana Craine

One day, Hollywood decided to plant a garden. The executive gardeners produced itsy-bitsy chick-flick seeds, macho-looking action movie seeds, threw in some droopy drama seeds for good measure, and tossed in a handful of others. The past few years, the execs have been tending to a new round of seeds. Slowly, these seeds have been germinating and sprouting from Hollywood. The blossoms peeking out from behind the rest of the flowers were rare gems known as, “The Squid and the Whale,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” This group, a family-drama-dark-comedy hybrid, seems to be gaining attention for its demure yet striking presentation. A new bud has emerged from this bunch, edging its way up towards Hollywood splendor.”Smart People” has all the right components to be an intellectual, cult hit. Yet, it falls just short of that title.

The film boasts a stellar cast — pseudo-indie It Girl Ellen Page, film vet Dennis Quaid, deadpan actor Thomas Haden Church, and sometimes-sultry Sarah Jessica Parker. “Smart People” was touted at the Sundance Film Festival as a literate comedy for sophisticated folk. However, despite all the commotion caused by this film it fails to deliver as the witty, unpretentious film that the media made it out to be.

This character-driven film revolves around Carnegie Mellon professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid). He is everything a student would despise in a professor: misanthropic, infamous for not caring about his students (including the simple fact of their names), narcissistic, and he doles out terribly harsh grades. He has two children that are at epic odds with one another. There is James (Ashton Holmes), a student at Carnegie Mellon, who is deeply secretive and happens to be a successful poet. Vanessa (Ellen Page) is his youngest, an irritatingly anal carbon copy of her father, repressed by her own doing. Thrown into the mix is Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) who is a lovable parasite that feeds off Lawrence’s paycheck every few months.

“Smart People” begins when Lawrence gets his car towed. He heckles the impound attendant, a former (and forgotten) student of his, before injuring himself in an attempt to jump the impound lot fence. At the emergency room, he meets another forgotten student who happens to be the stylish head of the ER (Sarah Jessica Parker). She calls Vanessa, alerting her about her father’s condition, only to be hung up on. Vanessa is studying for her SAT – nothing, not even her hospitalized father will tear her away from her precious Princeton Review book. From there, the plot unravels into a series of events strung together by the clumsy and cynical decisions Lawrence makes. And there you have “Smart People.”

The best off-beat humor in the film was thanks to Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church. Page’s Vanessa was unbelievably complex, sharp-witted, and awkward – all at the same time. She is stuck between being a quasi-housewife to her widowed father and actually trying to be her father. Page bounces between the two roles Vanessa has made for herself with grace. Despite Page’s talent, Vanessa seemed eerily reminiscent of Page’s breakout character, Juno – had Juno been an avid, turtleneck-wearing young republican. Church’s character Chuck adds the yang to Vanessa’s yin. A slightly unsavory deadbeat, he exposes Vanessa to weed, beer, and other degenerate activities. He also helps loosen up Lawrence and gains a friend with his nephew James.

The film’s tagline is “Sometimes smart people have the most to learn.” It looks like the Hollywood execs will have to test a few more of this budding breed of film before they reach the level of dark comedy in “The Squid and the Whale” or the spunky dysfunction in “The Royal Tenenbaums” again. “Smart People” blooms into a pleasant film about how to not be a sardonic snob, but does not blossom into anything more.