Smart PeopleDirected by Noam MurroStarring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica ParkerRated R6.5
Goes well with: As Good as it Gets, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno
It's kind of unfortunate that Ellen Page's first big post-Juno role is in the Sundance success Smart People, because the role isn't altogether different from her Oscar-nominated turn. Page is a terrific young actor with serious range, as her body of work will attest, but Vanessa Wetherhold, the character she plays here, is another snarky teen.
Blessed again with crackling dialog, Page pulls it off, playing the daughter of Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a self-involved Carnegie Mellon literature professor. He's a contentious, pretentious bully who's lost sight of the students in his life, including the ones in his classrooms and his own kids, Vanessa and James (Ashton Holmes).
But it all comes to a head when Lawrence's black-sheep adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) returns to town looking for a place to crash. Though Lawrence initially turns him away, a trip to the emergency room results in Lawrence losing his license, necessitating a chauffer, and reuniting with a former student, the brainy, lonely doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom he immediately starts courting.
Both Lawrence and Vanessa—who is a type-A, buttoned-up, young-Republican high-school senior, complete with a framed photo of Ronald Reagan on her bedroom wall—are masking years of emotional scar tissue stemming from the death of Lawrence's wife and Vanessa's mother. Presumably, she would have kept them in check were she still alive. Vanessa works incredibly hard to keep up the house and impress her dad with her accomplishments. But it's a cry for help. She's desperate for attention, and when she finally finds it, it comes from her ne'er-do-well adopted uncle, who isn't the sort to give her the kind of praise she craves.
Haden Church's performance is the highlight of the film. He's quiet and subtle but also crass and corrupting. Chuck isn't a scholar like his brother or his niece. He isn't successful in any traditional sense. But even though he's down on his luck, he isn't mired in unhappiness and self-loathing. He's also able to dispassionately see the inherent self-absorption pervasive in his family. Director Noam Murro makes a wise choice by turning the tables on the obnoxious-relative story. Instead of the low-class Chuck bringing down his successful relatives, it isn't long before he can't bear to be around them. His character is far more than the caricature that type of role often is. Sure, Lawrence and Vanessa are intelligent, but it's Chuck who is actually the smart one.
Smart People falters, however, by making Lawrence too much of a self-involved asshole. Sure, academia is a bubble, and tenure grants privileges and can lead to insufferable behavior, but such one-dimensional character development is almost always uninteresting. It's hard to see why Janet would give him chance after chance, even if she had a crush on him when she was an undergrad. He's just too much of a jerk and too convinced of his own superiority. Sure, she's an aging single woman, but she could—and should—do better.
There are no tremendous epiphanies in Smart People. The characters do make changes in small, incremental ways, and that feels real—the changes take place only after they see things about themselves they don't like. And even though these personal changes are small, they aren't easy to make. But in real life, it's those minor personality augmentations that count. It's a fact we all know, but it doesn't appear on the SATs and isn't taught in a classroom.