In acting, chameleon-like versatility can be overrated. In Smart People, the principle actors are assigned roles right in their natural strike zones, and it's a pleasure to watch them swing away with ease. Dennis Quaid
capitalizes on his natural late-career crankiness to play Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed English professor with a perpetual sour look. His daughter Vanessa is a mouthy overachiever, which is the established domain of
, whether her gift is configured through superhuman quippiness (Juno
), insane manipulation (Hard Candy
), or the ability to walk through walls (X-Men: The Last Stand).
Entering into the Wetherhold house, ostensibly to chauffer the belligerent prof after a seizure suspends his driver's license, is Lawrence's laid-back, semi-transient adopted brother Chuck. Chuck is played by Thomas Haden Church
in a clear and mostly successful post-Sideways bid to establish future laid-back semi-transients as "the Thomas Haden Church part." Church and Page are especially fun to watch and, especially, listen to: Church's sort of deadpan surfer growl and Page's nasal precociousness in a vocal duel. That they recall their previous roles only hastens our desire to spend time with them. Article continues below
Familiarity in a comedy-drama screenplay, though, is less valuable, and Smart People racks up a lot of superficial resemblances. To its credit, it recalls a terrific roster of other movies: the gone-to-seed professor has shades of Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale, while the dysfunctional family with an "adopted" sibling always introduced as such echoes The Royal Tenenbaums. It never rips any of these movies off -- dysfunctional families and cranky professors were not invented by early-aughts indie movies -- but nor does it come close to keeping up with the achievements of its higher-achieving siblings.
Indeed, the film eventually breaks free of those comparisons not by establishing its own tone and tempo, but by sabotaging it. Wetherhold begins a relationship with the doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker
) who first treats his seizure; this subplot manages to dominate the second half of the movie, relegating Church and Page to the background, without ever developing into something believable or even particularly interesting. It's a real triumph of vagueness when the doctor's anger at the pompous, stubborn, often unpleasant Wetherhold still seems like the arbitrary decision of the screenwriter.
The entire story moves at such an odd, reckless pace, whipping around its plot turns with scenes that often end abruptly -- sometimes after just a few seconds -- that it sometimes seems as if the picture's rhythm has been surgically removed. If Harvey Weinstein were still at Miramax, I'd wonder about him slicing and dicing another film-festival pickup (Smart People played at Sundance), but maybe first-time director Noam Murro
is so eager to get to the good, redemptive stuff that he overlooks the better, human stuff in between. Twenty minutes in, the insistent acoustic-guitar score is already plinking like the movie is about to end.
Stranger still, the actual ending strikes a nice, muted note. But by that point, the movie has cast aside characters (including a superfluous extra family member -- Lawrence's son, a thankless role for young actor Ashton Holmes
), neglected its three fine leads, and only dipped its feet into its campus milieu. The actors make Smart People homey and comfy enough, but the film doesn't build them a proper home.