“Smart People” – 3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

An ambience of intelligence, even when the characters are pompously unbearable, makes director Noam Murro’s “Smart People” an often disarming delight. Set at Carnegie Mellon University, where Dennis Quaid’s widower-professor Lawrence Wetherhold jadedly holds young minds hostage to his brilliance, we enter a bastion.

Here, in the halls of academia, affairs of the mind take precedence. Shh…someone just may invent a new number, find a way to smell color or unearth the Big Novel Fitzgerald deemed too good to publish. Or maybe not. But it’s quite nice to contemplate. And that optimistic, tacit dream permeates the atmosphere penned by screenwriter Mark Poirier.

It’s part of why we give Dr. Wetherhold a pass. Not just because he lost the Wellesley grad/love of his life way too soon and has these past nine years had to raise alone his two, equally gifted offspring. But also because of his ardor. Mr. Chips’s dyspeptic cousin, he trudges on, even if invisible tears now cloud the horizon of aspirations once envisioned.

We suspect that deep down he hasn’t lost sight of the humanism that steered him to a life among belle lettres. Yet of late, it’s become more of a sanctuary than is comely. He has fashioned himself into a literary character, part despot, part victim. Not to be left out of the dysfunction, his children have molded themselves to complement the grand funk.

Ellen Page is thoroughly engaging as Vanessa, the stereotypically troubled teen with an incandescently precocious edge. She’d unabashedly note that the last sentence was a pathetically grandiloquent attempt to classify her animus. She’d be right. It’s not for nothing that this gal hopes to cop perfect SAT scores. How crushing it’d be if she didn’t.

Of almost equal interest, though evinced in not such high relief, is son James. Living in the dorms at CMU but often making it home for some meatloaf and a perfunctory helping of family loathing, he may be a chip off the old block. When Dad is surprised to learn that son reads poetry, his response divulges the long-harbored sense of neglect.

No surprise, the English professor has an unchecked, fragile ego of his own. The fate of his latest book has him practically mad with doubt. Adding to his woes there’s the cerebral Sturm und Drang that goes with trying to select a new chair for his department. The expository anguish leads us to only one conclusion. These folks need an epiphany.

Thus we forgive the filmmaker for the ensuing cliché. If it’s a bump on the head Lawrence Wetherhold requires in order to meet the possibly life-changing Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), then a fence-climbing fall it is. Next stop, the emergency room. He doesn’t recognize the doctor. A studied look in her eye says he should.

Aha, there’s a story afoot… something from which a plot may unfold. Predictable but useable, this central motivator proves the film’s weakest part. Perhaps it would be more enticing if told from Dr. Hartigan’s point of view, if her character were more developed. Merely suggesting that she is complex and enigmatic just doesn’t do it.

Pity is, well written love affairs among the eggheaded class, such as the exemplary “A New Leaf” (1971), can bring a charming innocence to the spooning. Quaid supplies some of that. But the doc is usually just miffed, especially when the self-absorbed pedagogue stays true to character. She should know going in that this egg will be difficult to crack.

Happily, Thomas Haden Church takes up the slack as the freethinking deus ex machina. Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck, he is conveniently plopped down for a symbiotic reunion with Mr. and Mrs. Wetherhold’s real child. The professor can’t drive for six months. Chuck, who needs some spending cash and a place to live, offers to chauffeur.

Expectedly, the litterateur initially rails and then succumbs. These relationships in place, there is now enough of a branch from which to hang the good-natured comedy’s witty notions, acerbic asides and pungent theories. Church’s carefree uncle imparts a de Tocqueville touch to the doings, his objectivity a needed splash in the Wetherhold face.

Central to the enjoyment is the astutely penned banter comprising a majority of the dialogue. Doubtless there is enmity among the group, injuries received and issues unresolved. The barbs fly in a ceaseless competition of intellectual one-upmanship. But when it comes down to cases, a heartwarming truth defrosts the contentious chill.

Platitudinous but gratifying nevertheless, for all their sarcastic protestations the family Wetherhold convinces that they truly care for one another. So we establish a rooting interest, and hope that these geniuses are wise enough to learn a thing or two from the life lessons “Smart People” teaches.

Smart People,” rated R, is a Miramax Films release directed by Noam Murro and stars Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page and Sarah Jessica Parker. Running time: 95 minutes

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