Smart People
Director: Noam Murro. Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Ashton Holmes, Camille Mana, Christine Lahti. Screenplay: Mark Poirier.

Photo © 2008 Miramax Films
I saw Wonder Boys, too, and also The Squid and the Whale and Sideways, and even The Door in the Floor, and I have also noticed that playing over-the-hill academics and/or frustrated male writers at the fretful side of late middle-age proves a huge boon to familiar but perhaps underutilized actors. If I were such an actor, as is Dennis Quaid, I'd be looking for just such a role, and if I were a studio aiming to hold onto a reputation as a bastion of middlebrow sophistication, as is Miramax Films, I'd be happy to comply by digging one up. And yet, failing my alternative lives as a salad-years journeyman actor or a Hollywood factory writ small, I am only a moviegoer. From that perspective, I wish that Smart People weren't so obviously striated with the influences of fuller, richer movies, and that I could endorse more completely all of the steps it does take in very promising directions. The script by Mark Poirier comes admirably loaded with the kind of solid-B+ dialogue that you enjoy all through the film without quite remembering in the morning, and certainly I have no complaints with handing Dennis Quaid the opportunity to play some serious emotions without souring him up into that terrible, stony grimace he sometimes assumes in "serious" fare. Admitting that my back-catalogue of Quaid viewing is spare, I've never seen him better than he was a few years ago in In Good Company, radiating that jocular, peaked-in-high school, being-a-sport-about-it amiability that still poked through his white-collar humiliations and his state of paternal alarm. Smart People aims for the same sweet spot of enlisting Quaid's intelligence and self-awareness without denying him the wit and the grins that keep him so likable on screen. He handles the role well, but you couldn't say he owns it or thrives with it. His Lawrence Wetherhold, crusty academic, embittered widower, put-upon brother, fatigued father, is written as a summary of conjoined character arcs rather than a crystallized character, and Quaid draws a little on all of them, but not fully enough on any of them. Ditto Ellen Page, who's as lively and ironic as you're expecting, but less focused and assured than you might be hoping, as Quaid's acerbic daughter, a proud Young Republican with an Oedipal curiosity about her layabout uncle—played by Thomas Haden Church, by any measure the comic gem of the film, despite his AWOL evaporation from the middle third of the story, and despite having not much character to play.

The air of tired or misused or ambivalent smarts hangs over the movie, tempting but vaguely uninviting, like that dusty Britannica in the thrift-store. This is partly the case because the movie itself feels ambivalent about smarts, and (consequently?) inconsistent in its demonstration of smarts. At least, I assume that's why its compelling, insiderish approximation of campus politics, as in Dennis Quaid's arrogant but finally half-hearted jockeying to be anointed chair of the English Department, can suddenly slide into glaring cliché, as when the work of a budding poet shows up straightaway in the New Yorker, or the egghead professor comes equipped with the irascible, improbable quirk ("my God, those intellectuals!") of refusing to ride on the right-hand side of a car. The writing, however nicely peppered and spiced, has its own anxious hang-ups: when Page and Church have a fifth-act rapprochement concerning her earlier emotional confusions about him, they seem to be reacting to an earlier draft of the script that carried their behavior a lot further. As is, the Church character does seem to be over-reacting just a smidge, and Page seems much more intently focused on this one aspect of her recent experiences, even though the script threads it just about equally among several other subplots.

And what is there to do about Sarah Jessica Parker, laudably looking to expand her range from that pop tart Carrie Bradshaw, but succeeding only in looking more pinched and perpendicular than usual. Ultimately, she doodles a halfway-variation on the horrid clichés of feminine longing that Sex and the City often doles out. In Smart People's fashion-backward but ostensibly high-IQ twist on this formula, if you are an unmarried, brainiac professional woman at the near side of middle age, your misery and loneliness are things not to be dramatized, but one-dimensionally presumed from the outset, and reinstated by each successive scene—by writer, by director, by actress, and by audience. No hairpin grasp at future "domesticity," and you can guess what that entails, is too reckless or incredible. Smart People sometimes makes foolish choices, not the least of which are its strange scuttling of Ashton Holmes (A History of Violence) in an unexplored role and Christine Lahti, for god's sake, in an utter non-role. And how come Sarah Jessica plays the character who gets pregnant, but Dennis Quaid is the one walking around with a baby bump? Maybe the prop department isn't responsible; maybe Dennis' quest for objective correlatives is leading him to push out that gut a little too zealously, as if he's Dennis Quaid from the shoulders up and the hips down but Falstaff, somehow, in between.

Unfortunately, it's foibles like these that you remember a week later, rather than the pleasingly off-center jokes, or Church's wry damage-control at a surly Christmas dinner, or the top-shelf sitcom barbs that I'd gladly rehearse for you if I could recall them. Think a late-in-the-series episode of Frasier, albeit a hair less self-satisfied, and with fewer expensive furnishings. Smart People is exactly, and capably, the kind of comedy that certain, mostly older audiences complain (with justification) that they can't find anymore at the movies. Not the least, faintest glimmer of Judd Apatow or Jack Black or Tyler Perry even glints on this movie's horizon. If that sounds tempting to you, then hie thee hither. If not, or if it occurs to you that more or less comparable entertainment may be found on any syndicated channel at all hours of the night, in the comfort of your own pajamas and with wine from your own pantry, then Smart People is one date you'll be forgiven for standing up. C+

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