Movie Review: Smart People
By Matthew Huntley
June 4, 2008
Somewhere within Smart People there's a smarter, funnier and more emotional story about a family learning to be happy again. When the movie is about behavior and human nature, it shines and it's easy to imagine a small masterpiece at work. But there are other moments that cry out for a script re-write because you feel they only exist as the means to an end. These are the moments where you can picture the screenwriter muttering, "I just need something here," moments where you suspect the movie isn't flowing naturally.
That's not to say we don't end up with a smart, funny and emotional movie, but it's hard not to think afterwards that some obvious changes would have made it stronger and tighter. This is a movie many people will like and believe to be good, but it's also one that will leave them thinking, If only the movie had [fill in the blank]...
The story centers on the Wetherholds, an upper middle class family who haven't experienced joy since Mrs. Wetherhold died some years ago. She was the wife of Lawrence (Dennis Quaid) and mother of Vanessa (Ellen Page) and James (Ashton Holmes). Though we never see Mrs. Wetherhold, we sense it was her who prevented the family from becoming, as Vanessa puts it, so "fragile."
Lawrence is a professor of English literature at Carnegie Mellon University, where James also attends because his tuition ends up being free. Every morning, the depressed and out of shape Lawrence, with a belly that protrudes over his khakis, parks across two spaces, forgets the names of his students and manually adjusts his clock to get out of office hours. The man appears tired and scruffy and rolls his eyes when his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) shows up to perform tricks with the copy machine. Chuck's arrival can only mean one of two things: he needs money or a place to stay; or maybe it's both. What little life and ambition Lawrence does have comes from his wanting to become head of the English department or selling his manuscript to a publishing house.
One night, Lawrence's car is towed and taken to the campus impound lot. He argues with a security guard, a former student ("You gave me a D"), who won't allow Lawrence to get his car without a receipt. The bright professor climbs over the fence and, while trying to escape, falls over and has a seizure. At the emergency room, he's cared for by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), also a former student, who takes a bittersweet liking to the guy, probably the rekindling of her schoolgirl crush. Because he's had a seizure, Lawrence's license is suspended for six months, so it's a good thing Chuck is around to play chauffeur.
Expectedly, Lawrence and Janet start dating, which Vanessa is none too happy about, probably because she knows there's a possibility her father could start smiling again and thus leave her even more singled out. When Lawrence tells her "You seem unhappy," she replies, "You've always been my role model."