Smart People is an indie film that plays the (jangle, jangle) same chords (strum, strum) as a lot of other heartfelt comedies about too-wise children and codgers taking humanity lessons.
Yet this movie, a sort of Wonder Boys 2, does an expert job of filling in the colors between thickly-drawn lines. Lawrence, an embittered English prof (Dennis Quaid) at Carnegie Mellon (where Wonder Boys was partly filmed) has a son (Ashton Holmes) attending the same college who could be either a wastrel or a genius. Lawrence’s daughter (Ellen Page, doing a mean version of Juno) is applying to Stanford and Lawrence’s (adopted) brother (Thomas Haden Church) periodically shows up in search of a free refill of his wallet.
Lawrence has a dead wife and a deader manuscript, a thick hunk of pretension whose title barely fits on the title page and which has already been rejected by every house. He is so hung up on his departed beloved that he keeps all her clothes in a walk-in closet. When Lawrence’s faculty-standard sad Saab gets towed — it’s the kind of vehicle that is held together by Mondale ’84 bumper stickers and powered by crushed ambitions — he goes on a dangerous adventure to recover it (again, as in Wonder Boys) and winds up hospitalized. The ER doc (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a former student of his whom, like all the others, he doesn’t even recognize. She had a little crush on him once — until he gave her a C on her Bleak House paper.
It doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure out where all this is going, especially when the laid-back, boozy Church character moves in with the family and the Page character emerges as a female Alex P. Keaton who needs to loosen up. (She announces she’s a Young Republican and even keeps a Reagan portrait on her bedroom wall, just to make sure we understand she’s a heartless automaton.) The lite-rock strumming would work better if it weren’t poured into virtually every scene.
What makes the film a pleasure, though, is that the jumbled and dispirited college atmosphere is so convincing – Lawrence’s residence is a bleak house indeed — thanks to a script by a novelist and college teacher called Mark Poirier. He plausibly dissects the snippy committee meetings (shades of Richard Russo’s academe novel “Straight Man,” which is the field manual on the subject), shows how an academic book about literary criticism could be made sexy (retitle it, You Can’t Read, play up its Allan Bloom-style elitist obnoxiousness and beat the NPR crowd over the head with it) and has a feel for the verbal gymnastics of an over-educated family, where a word like “fecundity” is the kind of thing a kid learns before she’s out of kindergarten.
When Lawrence’s brother and his daughter conspire to help him get over his wife by donating all of her old clothes to Goodwill, he spends a lonely fluorescent-lit evening pushing a cart through Goodwill’s musty aisles to buy the stuff right back again. When he finally hooks up with the doctor who treated him in the ER, Lawrence hasn’t even let the sheets cool before he ruins it: “Do you have any plans for Christmas?” he wants to know. She retreats into the next room, waits a few seconds, then says she’s being paged at the hospital.
Their relationship, though, seems sketchy — it’s never clear what brings them together. A stranger, and more interesting, interaction is the one between Vanessa (Page) and Chuck (Church). When she gets a little too emotionally attached to him and he tries to draw away, she prowls around after him in a car while he tries to earn a few bucks stapling fliers to utility poles. “I completely respect your homosexuality,” she tells him.
Though the situations sometimes lean on too-cute conventions — Lawrence and the doctor start to warm to each other when they order salad the same way, the kind of worthless coincidence that would make an actual academic roll his eyes — Poirier’s dialogue lives up to the movie’s title. It’s rueful with a little chaser of misanthropy. Getting roaring drunk, possibly for the first time, causes Vanessa to ask one of her makeup-caked classmates, “What’s it like being stupid?” The other girl responds, “What’s it like sitting alone at lunch every day?” “It sucks!” says Vanessa.
Directed by Noam Murro
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page
3 stars/ 4
93 minutes/Rated R
Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com.