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For a film about an English professor who takes literature more seriously than his relationships, Smart People conspicuously forgets the cardinal rule of storytelling: You gotta show, not tell, that somebody’s being a dickhead. That might not have been the exact wording I jotted down in my writing class, but it certainly applies to this unbearably smug dramedy, whose humor is nearly nonexistent and whose drama will irritate you just enough to stave off a snooze.
Not surprisingly, Smart People was co-produced by the producer of Sideways. Alexander Payne’s widely (but not universally) loved 2004 film was filled with characters who were “real”—that is, imperfect, though in both movies that seems to be shorthand for “assholes.” At least Sideways had plot development going for it. Here, a fine cast of Dennis Quaid, Thomas Haden Church (half of Sideways’ wine-guzzling main duo), Sarah Jessica Parker, and Ellen Page do what they can with a skimpy debut script by Mark Jude Poirier and the likewise green direction of first-timer Noam Murro.
Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a hairy, disheveled Carnegie Mellon prof who doesn’t bother to learn student names, is only caring toward his kids, Young Republican Vanessa (Page) and poet James (Ashton Holmes), when they achieve, and can’t let go of his dead wife’s clothes. Lawrence is outwardly hostile—at least more so than others—toward Chuck (Church), his parasitic and similarly hirsute adopted brother, who volunteers to move in and be Lawrence’s chauffeur when an accident forces the professor off the road for six months. But the accident, a fall resulting from Lawrence’s refusal to pay a towing ticket, has its benefits: Lawrence is treated by Janet (Parker), a formerly goo-goo-eyed student who’s now head of the ER and who gets pouty/flirty when he doesn’t remember her. And Vanessa gets to learn how to have fun with Chuck, whose drinking and pot-smoking lessons she welcomely interprets as come-ons.
Hardly any of this is believable. Quaid and his character’s general cantankerousness fares best, though even when Lawrence warms up to Janet, he’s still apparently emitting waves of jerkitude that make her go hot and cold in terribly underwritten scenes. Parker’s role, in fact, is practically unplayable from Scene 1: No matter how hard her student crush, it’s hard to believe that a successful, attractive doctor would still be carrying a torch after—well, however many years it takes one to become head of an ER, which is obviously more than a few. She first seems not only sulky but bitter, reaching tepid at best when they start to date, before suddenly turning back to angry at some unseen slight. When Lawrence finally asks, “What the hell is your problem?” it’s a cheerable moment.
Meanwhile, James is just a prop conveniently relegated to the dorm, and Page’s Vanessa is little more than a poorly dressed Alex P. Keaton. She’s an acerbic perfectionist but supposedly also a real live girl who’s desperate for parenting and lonely for companionship; we’re supposed to glean this because she once mentions reading Cosmopolitan and hates Janet, constantly referring to her as the “physician.” Oh yeah, and she also hits on Uncle Chuck, planting one on a dude who looks like a ’70s porn star and telling him his jeans “are snug in all the right places.” Chuck is at least the movie’s sole source of charm, and his comparatively laid-back attitude never descends into cartoonishness despite, alas, Murro’s decision to bare the actor’s ass twice for laughs.
Icing Smart People’s insufferableness is a relentless adult-contemporary score by Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, whose strumming is somber, somber, somber until a not-so-subtle tempo-uptick signals a brief change in the film’s tone. But soon it’s back to melancholy again, and even though a character or two has an inevitable revelation about their intolerability, by then you’ll be quite ready to be rid of these people for good.