Going by the Book: 'Smart People' Trots Out the Standardized Characters

Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page star in this comedy about a widowed professor who falls in love just as his brother re-enters his life. Showtimes
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, the grumpy protagonist of the snarky, fitfully amusing "Smart People," wears his dyspepsia on a proudly pilled sleeve. A tenured literature professor at Carnegie Mellon University with the tetchy arrogance to prove it, he has clearly stayed too long at the fair. When a new class rolls in, he hands out "Hello My Name Is" stickers rather than go to the trouble of learning his students' names; when a young person shows up for help on a paper, he sets his clock forward five minutes and claims office hours are over. Wetherhold -- burned out, bitter and bilious -- has clearly decided to let his crank flag fly.

As portrayed by a bearded, bed-headed Dennis Quaid, Wetherhold joins a long line of disaffected academics in the movies, from Richard Burton's George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to Michael Douglas's Grady Tripp in "Wonder Boys." In fact, fans of that 2000 comedy will no doubt sense that Tripp's spirit thoroughly and fragrantly infuses "Smart People," from the shabby elegance of its Pittsburgh locations to the dysfunction at its core. But don't expect Wetherhold to partake of the occasional joint or suddenly begin to wear a woman's bathrobe around the house: The closest thing to such antics this perpetually furrow-browed widower gets up to is climbing a chain-link fence to liberate his briefcase from an impounded car.

Such is the inciting event that sends "Smart People" down its largely predictable and too-often-derivative course. When Wetherhold ends up in a hospital emergency room, his overachieving teenaged daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) initially refuses to visit, because she's studying for the SATs. Her brother James (Ashton Holmes) lives in a dorm on campus, the better to avoid the air of sourness pervading the Wetherhold household.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the attractive attending physician in the ER, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), has a past connection with Wetherhold, one that threatens to crack his carefully constructed shell of unalloyed self-absorption. As Vanessa explains at one point, the Wetherhold family creed rests on the rock-bottom belief that compassion is nothing more than compensation for intellectual weakness.

"Smart People," which was written by novelist Mark Jude Poirier, possesses a sure and sharp sense of its milieu, from the insular world of academia, with its low-stakes infighting and politicking, to the book-lined, modestly bohemian Wetherhold house. And Poirier clearly revels in giving his characters brains, the better to unapologetically deliver impromptu disquisitions on "Bleak House" and semiotics.

But as refreshing as it is to hear people speak in complete paragraphs in a movie, these characters all feel vaguely familiar. Page, fresh off her career-making star turn in last year's "Juno," affects the same irritatingly prolix persona of that movie's precocious title character, the only difference being that Vanessa is a Young Republican. As the commitment-phobic doctor, Parker often resembles Carrie Bradshaw in a white coat, plying the same approach-avoid technique for romance that propelled "Sex and the City" season after season. And for all the sympathy Quaid implicitly brings to the stock character of unrepentant academic misanthrope, Wetherhold's pomposity and pedantry fit too squarely into what is by now an overused mold.

What's more, the constant tone of surly sarcasm with which the smart people in "Smart People" keep the world at bay finally begins to grate. When the film reaches its happy ending, is it because it's genuinely happy or just ending?

One bright spot amid the sniping arrives in the form of Thomas Haden Church as Wetherhold's black sheep of a brother, Chuck. Sporting a bad mustache and his usual deadpan delivery, Church can be counted on for a few chuckles, even if the filmmakers have to resort to the occasional shot of his bare rear end peeking out from a pair of red long johns. It's impossible to resist the feeling that we've seen that before, too.

Smart People (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, brief drug and alcohol use and sexuality.

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