Smart People


Vanessa Wetherhold: “What is it like being stupid?”
Brooke: “It’s like sitting alone at lunch every day.”

For a movie about supposedly clever individuals, “Smart People” isn’t very smart. In fact, it shows its lack of intelligence almost instantly when it opens with a sequence of scenes that establish what a self-involved, miserable jackass college professor, Lawrence Weatherhold (Dennis Quaid) is, with the subtlety of an international fireworks competition. He can’t remember the names of his students. He can’t be bothered to honour his office hours. He doesn’t even have the time of day for his adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He is coarse with everyone he meets and shows disdain for everything life throws at him. First time filmmaker, Noam Munro, then expects us to dig deep into our already put off hearts and find some sympathy for this devil of a man. Barely five minutes have passed and you know exactly what to expect. Lawrence will meet a girl before long and she will show him that as smart as he thinks he is, he’s got oh so much more to learn about living and loving life. Seeing as how the premise is overdone and the man in desperate need of change is completely unlikable, I’m thinking they might have wanted to put a little more thought into this one before declaring it smart.

And find a woman, Lawrence does. After suffering a concussion from falling off a fence, Lawrence is reconnected with a former student of his that went on to become an E.R. doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). Reconnected is not exactly the right choice of words as he does not remember her whatsoever. He is not the least bit kind to her, just like when he was her professor way back when, and all of their interactions are awkward and unsatisfying. Yet, she shows no hesitation when he asks her out for a “face to face” (that’s “Smart People” talk for “date”). First time screenwriter, Mark Poirier, might want to look up the meaning of “motivation”. What incentive is there for this successful doctor to go out with this pompous man? While we’re on the subject, why does a man so content in his misery suddenly make a move toward potential happiness? Smart, well-rounded characters make their own decisions and do things for a reason. These types of script progressions make sense and create meaning instead of simply serving the plot. In this scenario, we are left to watch a relationship grow out of nothing and therefore have no stake in its success.

As if Lawrence’s obnoxious presence weren’t enough, he seems to have passed on all of his “better” traits to his teenage daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page). Vanessa excels at everything she does and does not for a moment let life get in the way of these successes. Not surprisingly, she has no life outside of this. Having lost her mother an undetermined time ago, she desperately craves her father’s approval and attention. Thankfully for her, her uncle, Chuck, can come to her emotional rescue just like Dr. Hartigan is doing for her Dad. Thankfully for us, all the actors involved are talented enough to bring as much depth as is physically possible to these thin characters. Now we have a detestable father-daughter duo and two saviors. What we don’t have is a reason to care. While it makes sense for Vanessa to emulate her role model, we still have no idea why Lawrence is so unhappy. Seeing as how he can’t seem to part with his dead wife’s clothes, one could infer that he gave up after her death but he was apparently just as loathsome in his earlier teaching days. The story seems to be pushing him to get over something but doesn’t bother establishing what it is he has to get over.

“Smart People” seems to imply that people who are smart do not know how to be happy, are completely selfish individuals and essentially think that they are better than everyone else. Not only have these inferences been made countless times but they are also the worst kinds of clichés, the kinds that are based on ignorance and untruths. Murro and Poirier jump in and out of moments in these characters’ experiences without explaining how they got there, why we should care or where they’ll go when it is all done. All they seem concerned with is making their hackneyed point and using as many big words as possible in the process. In the end, “Smart People” is just plain dumb.

Review by Joseph Bélanger