Smart People

2008, Movie, R, 93 mins

Review

SMART PEOPLE
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Smart indeed. Set in the world of academia, acclaimed commercials director Noam Murro's debut feature is a sharp, superbly acted character-driven comedic drama about book-smart but heart-stupid people fumbling their way through two of life's most treacherous minefields: adolescence and middle-age.

According to all his overwhelmingly negative student evaluations, Carnegie Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is arrogant, long-winded, critical to the point of cruelty and contemptuous of his students whose names he can barely remember. Lawrence's contempt isn't limited the eager young minds who take his Victorian literature classes: He's also openly dismissive of his fellow faculty members, whom he regards as boobs, and the interest he shows toward his son, James (Ashton Holmes), an art history student at CM, is passing at best. And even though his smart, acerbic and politically conservative 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa (Juno's Ellen Page), dotes on him and is clearly growing up to be just as miserable as he has become since his wife died, Lawrence tends to take her for granted. Whether he knows it or not, Lawrence Wetherhold is depressed. On top of his inability to come to terms with his wife's death, his career seems to be sputtering out. No publisher seems willing to touch his dreary, finger-wagging manuscript, "The Price of Postmoderism: Epistemology, Hermeneutics and the Literary Canon," and rather than offer him the department chair as he hoped, his colleagues have charged him with the unenviable task of heading the faculty search committee. And on the day his ne'er-do-well adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), shows up after a two-year absence, broke and needing a place to stay, Lawrence has his Saab towed with his manuscript inside. When an attempted bribe to the guard at the impound-lot fails -- the kid turns out to be a former student who isn't about to do his cranky old prof any favors -- Lawrence breaks in, retrieves his precious work, then falls from the high fence while making his escape. When Lawrence regains consciousness, he's the hospital where ER head Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) informs him that he has suffered severe head trauma and by law he isn't allowed to drive for the next six months (good thing Chuck is hanging around with nothing to do but annoy dyspeptic Vanessa). Janet, too, was once one of Lawrence's students, until a low grade on her Bleak House paper made Janet switch her major from lit to pre-med. Lawrence's accompanying, confidence-crushing remarks also helped Janet move past the crush she'd been nursing on him for months, but the flame has not entirely died out over the years. When Lawrence, moving far outside his comfort zone for the first time since the death of his wife, asks her out on a date, she accepts, even though "the physician" (as a jealous Vanessa refers to her) is hardly a specialist in relationships herself.

It surprising how few movies takes place in the rarefied world of the Academy until one realizes that setting a movie on a college campus means that someone has to come up with intelligent dialogue that could actually pass for intellectual conversation. Novelist-turned-screenwriter Mark Poirier (Goats, Modern Ranch Living) is certainly up to the task, but beyond quipping about the Victorians and quoting William Carlos Williams, his script's real wisdom lies in its understanding of how the human heart interacts with the head, and not always with the best results. Quaid's great, Page and Church are even better and Parker proves there's life beyond Sex and the City. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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