Smart People

A pompus, arrogant and set in his ways Professor is caught off guard by the sudden appearance of his adopted step-brother, the sudden re-appearance of a former student , and the reality that he has been a poor emotional role model to his two children, specifically his daughter. Dennis Quaid, Thomas Hayden-Church, Sarah-Jessica Parker and Ellen Page head an all-star ensemble cast in this dramedy written by Mark Poirier and Directed by Noam Murro.

After an accident leaves him unable to drive himself around, Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) must rely on his adopted step-brother, Chuck (Church), to drive him and unwillingly also allow him to stay with him and his daughter, Vanessa (Page). Emotionally closed off, and visibly arrogant, Wetherhold has emersed himself fully in his teaching career since the death of his wife, and pushes both of his children to excel. He also turns off all of his students and fellow faculty members with his superior attitude, as he tries to capture the job of being head of the english department, and also tries in vain to get his first novel published. Wetherhold also begins an awkward romance with a former student, Janet Hartigan (Parker), after being examined by her in the emergency room. Idealizing her father, and also not wanting to share what little time and attention she does get from him, daughter Vanessa sets out to sabotage the would-be romance to no avail, and then turns her attention to Chuck, who suddenly finds himself in the role of emotional caregiver while Lawrence concentrates on his novel and his romance with Janet.

A wonderful ensemble piece, with witty writing and heartfelt, touching dramatic moments as well, Smart People is a delightful surprise to those willing to get emersed in the lives of people who may seem out of the ordinary, but who ultimately suffer very ordinary problems. The chemistry among the four leads is very special and enduring to watch. Thomas Hayden-Church is fantastic in the role of Chuck, and his dry, witty humor is a perfect beat off of Dennis Quaid’s overly serious Professor. Quaid is a true surprise in this movie. Usually playing very lively, very likable characters, Quaid takes the risk of playing a stuck up, arrogant snob, who very quickly in the movie comes off as a total a-hole. What is remarkable is that Quaid is able to subtly inflect the right amount of character and depth in the opening half of the movie to make the audience aware that something is hidden underneath. For those of us willing to take the journey along with him, we see a remarkable character study and a touching turn in Lawrence by the end of film. His often awkward courtship of Janet is both sweet and enduring, as is his strong connection to the memory of his deceased wife.

His chemistry with Sarah-Jessica Parker leaves some to be desired, but also befits the awkward and unsettling nature of the romance itself. Lawrence is Janet’s former Professor, and so we can reasonably assume he is at least 10-20 years older than her, and the differences in that age gap play out well. Also, Janet hasn’t let go of two things since she last saw Lawrence as a college student all those years ago; her schoolgirl crush on him, and the fact that he gave her a “C” on a term paper. In perhaps one of the better moments of the film, Janet brings the paper to there first date and gives it to Lawrence angrily after he has babbled on for 45 minutes and ignored her completly. Lawrence, in his arrogant way, smiles and sasses back to Janet. He takes the paper home, and humerously changes the grade from a “C” to a “B-” and then moments later back to the original “C.” It is a small scene, but one that encompases the lengths in which Lawrence will need to grow to not only win over Janet, but his children and his students as well.

Ellen Page (of Juno acclaim) is also very fun to watch in this movie, and she does inject the same lovable sarcasm, wit and hints of vulnerability she did into the Juno character last year. That is both refreshing and also somewhat disappointing at the same time. It can be refreshing, in that, she does seem like Juno in another movie, but its also disappointing that she played the parts so similar to one another. I do think it works in this film, but would hope to see something new from her in the future, as she is a fabulous actress, and the script offers her character alot to do in this film. Her character, Vanessa, in some ways, is the opposite of the widowed father played by Quaid. Where Lawrence becomes a likable character by the end, Vanessa does take a few unlikable turns in her attempts for attention and rebellion, but all of them are played quite well by Page. In particular, her relationship to the Chuck character becomes quickly out of control of disturbing, and becomes perhaps the only subplot in the film you may find yourself wishing would conclude itself faster than others.

Ultimately, the film is a fun story. The main characters learn things, and evolve and its fun to see the Lawrence character lose alot of his arrogance and his assumptions about the masses by the end. The film is about Smart People, but is really just a movie about all of us, and the choices we face and the constant ability to redeem ourselves in the eyes of those around us and in our own eyes. We all learn the same tough lessons these characters learn, and simply put…thats why the movie is so watchable. Quaids character, in particular, becomes so identifiable, because he is so set in his ways and in his thinking, and when the Janet character begins to shatter those preconceptions or to challenge them, we see him react much in the same way we all do. We could all only hope to have such perserverance and such lucky results as Lawrence.

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