College professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is not having an easy time. The widower must deal with his aggressively over-achieving daughter (Page), layabout adoptive brother (Haden Church) and his growing feelings for his doctor (Parker). And he persist
In the early 90s, the big trend in US independent filmmaking was the heist-gone-wrong. Nowadays, if you’re a director with any pretensions to cool, you’d better be making a drama, with bleakly comic elements, about a highly intellectual family with massive personal issues. From Wonder Boys to The Royal Tenenbaums to The Squid And The Whale to this effort, it’s all about smartie-pants angst – and against such considerable competition, Smart People struggles to make an impact.
Dennis Quaid plays firmly against type as an arrogant, distant professor who’s so far out of touch with his feelings that he’s probably on another continent. He manages better than one might expect, but a couple of times he cracks that devilish grin and it puts him back to square one.
The rest of the cast, however, are mired in their usual roles, giving the film an air of predictability it shouldn’t have. Ellen Page is the aggressively intelligent daughter, determined to get a perfect grade-point average and the full clutch of extracurricular bonus points as she prepares for college. But she’s so emotionally retarded that she’s reading romance novels under cover of more intellectual fare and harbouring an inappropriately incestuous crush on her layabout adoptive uncle. He’s played by Thomas Haden Church and – as in Sideways – he has nothing to do but lounge and dispense wisdom advocating the value of chilling out occasionally. Their odd relationship seems based principally on the fact that he’s the one person not intimidated by her practically robotic drive, but it’s a compelling little aside that would make a better focus for the film than the ensemble drama we actually get.
Meanwhile, Sarah Jessica Parker struggles to make an impact as a doctor with commitment issues of her own who’s trying to act on her youthful crush on Quaid’s professor years after graduating, and A History Of Violence’s Ashton Holmes barely gets a look-in as the poetry-writing older brother.
In the end, while funny and occasionally, yes, smart, this feels cobbled together from elements of stronger films: the dispirited professor-writer and rain-sodden setting of Wonder Boys, the incestuous relationship excused by adoption of Tenenbaums, and the unpleasant malcontents of The Squid And The Whale. First time director Noam Murro hints that he might have what it takes, but he’ll need to do better next time to convince us of his smarts.
Strong performances and a few laughs, but the story feels lazy next to superior efforts recently in the same genre.