Smart People is a new movie that tries to be both quirky and semi-intellectual by putting respectable actors in roles that they had already successfully played in movies made by more creative people. Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence, a douchebaggy literature professor, who has a wise-cracking, vintage-wearing teenage daughter (Juno! I mean, Ellen Page) and starts a relationship with beautiful but romantically-awkward woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) through whom he has to learn how to be a nicer person. Oh yeah, he also has a lazy but lovable brother played by Thomas Haden Church, who provides some comic relief. But what do the critics have to say? Can they successfully point out all of the hilarious subtle references to life in the intelligentsia? Can they get through an entire review without calling the movie "Stupid People?" The collected reviews after the jump.
Too bad the movie's central relationship, the prickly courtship between Wetherhold and his doctor girlfriend, never finds its momentum. Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker, both terrific, aren't to blame. The problem is that their relationship proceeds according to the As Good as It Gets law, which dictates that angry, paunchy, deeply disturbed old men in the movies need only to dial down their unpleasantness by 5 percent to win the affection of smart, kind, beautiful young women.
Its pretty conventional characters are often pretty funny. Or maybe I should say, surprisingly interesting. Ellen Page (recently of =Juno ) brings her wise-child persona to a somewhat more mature character with ironic expertise. The same can be said of Church, who knows how to do slackers, without seeming to be one as an actor. Paradoxically, he's an energetic slob. Parker probably has the toughest assignment here, as a smart woman making a dumb choice. But she has charm and perkiness and if she doesn't entirely persuade us to suspend disbelief, she at least gets us to elide it.
Noam Murro's feature debut, "Smart People," suffers from that kind of perspiration problem. There's not a minute in the picture where we're not reminded, either by a too-polished line of dialogue or a precociously unstudied camera angle, that this is a movie for an intelligent, sophisticated audience, an audience who just naturally gets it. "Smart People" is so preoccupied with congratulating us for getting it that it fails to give us much to get in the first place, even though it features a respectable ensemble of actors — among them Dennis Quaid, Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker — squeezing as hard as they can to wring some life from the material.
In addition to the machinations of father, daughter and brother, there is a flimsy subplot involving Quaid's son (Ashton Holmes), a college student with literary aspirations of his own. Mystifyingly, there is a young female character who plays a student of Quaid's who also shows up on his college's search committee for department chairman. No explanation is made, making it seem as if the filmmakers were scrimping on hiring actors.
Ellen Page does the best she can as a teen automaton who wants her Dad to stop holding onto Mom's old clothes because if he donates them to charity they'll get a tax write-off, "which is pretty cool." But this pitiless caricature of Young Republicanhood is meant for broader farce, not a dreary dramedy like Smart People. As it is, it's hard to shake the impression of Juno MacGuff offering an ironic portrait of Tracy Flick.
But as refreshing as it is to hear people speak in complete paragraphs in a movie, these characters all feel vaguely familiar. Page, fresh off her career-making star turn in last year's "Juno," affects the same irritatingly prolix persona of that movie's precocious title character, the only difference being that Vanessa is a Young Republican. As the commitment-phobic doctor, Parker often resembles Carrie Bradshaw in a white coat, plying the same approach-avoid technique for romance that propelled "Sex and the City" season after season. And for all the sympathy Quaid implicitly brings to the stock character of unrepentant academic misanthrope, Wetherhold's pomposity and pedantry fit too squarely into what is by now an overused mold.
Lawrence, a widower not so secretly married to his grief, hides behind a façade of insouciance fortified with truculence. If he were more readily likable, the movie would be predictable, but he isn't, and it isn't (except, perhaps, for a flagrantly feel-good end-title sequence). This is some of the best work Mr. Quaid has done in an always interesting career. Since he's an exceedingly likable actor, he can play Lawrence as a pompous stranger to his children (he also has a son, a closet poet) and the despair of colleagues who think they know him, yet keep us rooting for him all the way.
That may sound like a minor accomplishment, but the great virtue of "Smart People," attributable to Noam Murro's easygoing direction as well as to Mr. Poirier's wandering screenplay, lies in its general preference for small insights over grand revelations. There is a fairly busy plot, and some of its developments — an unplanned pregnancy, a flicker of quasi-incestuous sexual interest, the acceptance of a poem by The New Yorker — clatter onto the screen like carelessly flung darts. But to a greater extent than in most comedies, the narrative seems more like background or scaffolding than like the engine that drives the characters, who are propelled instead by their own colliding, confusing, idiosyncratic energies.