It’s accepted American wisdom now that smart people are not to be trusted. Thus our presidential candidates sprinkle the occasional “ain’t” when speaking to the little people, and strive to project the image of someone who did not spend his formative years in prep school. And everyone knows it’s a sure-fire formula in action film-making to follow the Die Hard example and give your villains multiple degrees and perfect diction. Want to spot the bad guy in a murder mystery? He’s the one who knows how to use “whom” properly.
With intelligence as the new stupid, one can predict with some accuracy what Smart People writer Mark Poirier expects us to think of his subjects. The tagline of the movie is, after all: “Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.” Thus the smartest character, the widowed Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (played quite convincingly by Dennis Quaid) is in fact the most oblivious to common sense and decorum. His dysfunctional teen-aged children, James (a mostly absent Ashton Holmes) and Vanessa (played by my favorite young actress right now, Ellen Page), have not fallen far from their father’s smart/stupid tree, having hit most of the branches on their way down.
Into their lives comes Lawrence’s shiftless brother Chuck (a delightfully disheveled Thomas Haden Church), followed soon after by Lawrence’s former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker, whose acting I have not enjoyed since Hocus Pocus, but who avoids glamour lighting and hair styling to play what passes for a real woman for once). What follows is pursuit of connection by almost hopelessly isolated, intelligent people. Lawrence and Janet strike up an awkward, stilted romantic relationship. Chuck tries to get Vanessa to release the corn cob from her keister, and Vanessa tries to draw close to her father.
This is a character-driven story, and the brothers Wetherhold, along with Lawrence’s daughter Vanessa, are delightful. I found myself wanting the scenes in which they interacted to stretch out, but one of the virtues of this script is that it avoids sentimentality by keeping the characters on a tight leash. There are no gushing epiphanies here. Save that mush for the wisely stupid people watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.
This is the second recent movie (along with last year’s Dan in Real Life), however, in which a widowed man must struggle to connect with his children while also managing a burgeoning romance. And in both cases the writers conclude that the most important relationship is between the protagonist and his new lady friend. Even though I respect the instinct for strangling sentimentality in its crib, Lawrence and Vanessa were crying out for genuine confrontation. Instead the writer focused on Lawrence and his sexual entanglement, leaving an unbelievable, one-line resolution to tie things up between Lawrence and Vanessa.
Perhaps it’s archaic to put children first in an age when even most Christians embrace, by virtue of the self-help psychology that passes for Christian guidance, the notion that the romantic relationship of spouses is pre-eminent. But then I still think smart is a darn sight better than stupid. So from my old-fashioned point of view, the relationship that mattered was between Lawrence and his daughter. Quaid and Page did such masterful work that it’s a shame to see the opportunity pass.
That’s why I’m giving Smart People five nuggets, but right when you get ready to bite into that last one, I’m going to snatch it from your hand. The film is definitely worth a Redbox rental for the exceptional performances by Quaid, Page, and Church, but you’ll find yourself a little hungry when it’s done.
Speaking of parent-child resolution, I’m a sucker for Ordinary People, the story of a boy’s wrestling with the death of his brother and his own subsequent suicide attempt. It was outshined by far lesser films in 1980, but Donald Sutherland is the father every child would want, while Mary Tyler Moore is convincingly the mother only a dead son could love. Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch, meanwhile, never did better work. What movies in this vein do you recommend?