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Smart People

By Cole Haddon | Posted 4/9/2008

In Smart People, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a slovenly, cantankerous professor of literature whose son hates him and daughter idolizes him. James (Ashton Holmes) is a rebellious shadow of his father; Vanessa (Ellen Page) is an emotionally shut-off but brilliant Reaganite: think Alex P. Keaton, but soulless. The Wetherholds are still dealing with the death of Lawrence's wife several years earlier, and everyone that comes in contact with them, including Lawrence's adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), suffers for it.

There's a heap of nonexplosive drama going on here, even if much of it is the kind the characters don't talk about aloud, and that infuses Smart People with a sense of profundity that generally separates literary fiction from more easily accessible cinematic fiction. This is no doubt because of first-time screenwriter Mark Poirier, a novelist who treats his characters, dialogue, and story with the same attention to emotional minutia you would find in his hardbound work.

When Lawrence suffers a seizure due to his pigheaded stubbornness, his driver's license is suspended on medical grounds for six months, making it necessary for him to let his slacker adopted brother move in with him and Vanessa in order to chauffeur him around. Vanessa, an androidlike clone of her father, is a scary thing to behold, and Chuck immediately goes to work trying to coax some humanity back into her. Meanwhile, Lawrence has begun dating Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), an ex-student who treated him in the ER. She's as emotionally retarded as Lawrence, though, and is soon playing games with his heart and mind as he pursues his English department's chair and his critical literary study is published.

The movie's subtle conflicts are between characters, though Poirier uses Lawrence's job hunt and book to create some semblance of structure. Instead, the Wetherholds and Dr. Hartigan drift almost aimlessly, as people do in life, passing briefly and occasionally colliding, as their intellects tend to undermine their efforts to lead happy lives.

Watching Smart People, it's hard not to recall writer/director Noah Baumbach's movies featuring the educated upper class, as director Noam Murro's work here shares much in common tonally and thematically with Baumbach's recent output. However, while Baumbach and Murro take novelistic tacks as they strive for the emotional truth in their emotionally stilted characters' lives, their movies don't share the novelist's general acknowledgement of artifice in their creations. Consequently, something like Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding or Murro's Smart People feels cerebral, scholarly, or, quite simply, smart but lacks the cinematic joie de vivre needed to make you understand why you bought a movie ticket instead of a book.

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