18 April 2008

Smart People

I’m sure we’ve all had at least one professor like Lawrence Wetherhold, played by Dennis Quaid in the new film “Smart People.” As the title infers, he’s smart, and he knows it. And he has no problem lording his intellectual superiority over his students, much to their, and our chagrin.
It is a bit painful to watch a character who we should view as sympathetic act in such a singularly self-destructive manner. In fact, most of the “smart people” in the film do the same, but it’s a testament to the filmmakers that such masochism never causes us to lose interest.
We get the sense that Lawrence has always been a misanthrope, but since the death of his wife, his attitude has worsened. His high school age daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) seems to be a chip off the old block, even mimicking her father’s indifference toward his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church).
Lawrence becomes involved with a former student (who he doesn’t remember) named Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is now a doctor. As expected, Lawrence’s sour disposition isn’t exactly great fodder for a good relationship, and the two start to have problems.
There’s not really that much of a central plot, just scenes from a specific point in all these characters lives where they must ultimately decide if they will take the necessary steps to become happy again. Considering their personalities, one doesn’t expect much, and the film doesn’t necessarily spell out a certain happy ending.
So why would anyone want to spend an hour and a half with such unpleasant characters? I’ll admit it takes a certain mindset and patience, but it can be rewarding. It works, pure and simple, but not in an easily identifiable way.
That’s not to say it’s perfect all the time. Dr. Hartigan comes off as particularly ill-developed and confusing. It’s no wonder Lawrence has a hard time figuring her out. And an odd subplot involving Vanessa and her adopted, emphasis on the adopted, Uncle Chuck may fit the theme but doesn’t fit well with the rest of the comparatively realistic story.
Dennis Quaid continues to be one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood today. Considering his choice of projects, it’s no wonder. He usually seems content to be involved in mediocre action films or shallow comedies. But when he’s given a chance, like he is here, to really stretch himself and show his chops, he never disappoints.
The rest of the cast is capable enough, if not particularly brilliant. Ellen Page shows considerable range in being able to play a completely different kind of smart-aleck than we saw in last year’s “Juno.” It would have been easy for her to repeat characters, but she goes the extra mile to make sure she doesn’t.
It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t necessarily give into artificial character arcs or forced poetic justice. Their lives are just as messy at the end of the film as they are in the beginning, but for whatever reason, there’s just a little bit more hope.

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