By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008
In "Smart People," Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Wetherhold, a bearded, saturnine grouch, has just finished his latest book, which as the movie opens is on its way to oblivion. He has a strained relationship with his two children and embarks on a precarious romance with a local emergency room physician that only threatens to send him further into his antisocial shell.
"Smart People," which opened in Washington on Friday, marks the feature debut of its director, Noam Murro, and screenwriter, Mark Jude Poirier. But this brand-new film bears an uncanny resemblance to movies that have gone before: When Murro cuts to an establishing shot of Wetherhold's stately Pittsburgh rowhouse, viewers will be forgiven for expecting to see Michael Douglas, circa "Wonder Boys" in 2000, flop out to the front porch dressed in his frowzy pink bathrobe.
It's a cinematic archetype as reliable as the fish out of water and the blonde in distress: the disheveled, misanthropic college professor, in the throes of writer's block (or some other form of publish-or-perish anxiety), living in book-lined solitude as a result of divorce, death or free-floating disgust with humanity.
There's little doubt why academia provides such a tempting backdrop for filmmakers (and novelists: David Lodge has made a cottage industry of sending up the ivory tower). As a wag once observed, the backbiting and politics in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low. What better fodder for exploring human behavior at its most extreme, petty, adulterous, borderline homicidal and, finally, ridiculous?
Douglas's "Wonder Boys" character, the pot-smoking, psychologically blocked creative writing professor Grady Tripp, was a particularly amusing apotheosis of the type. But he was just one in a long line of memorable predecessors and successors: Think of rumpled Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Or stentorian John Houseman in "The Paper Chase." Or pedantic, dyspeptic and philandering Jeff Daniels in "The Squid and the Whale."
Most recently, a professor's long-ago affair with a student provided a plot point in the drama "Away From Her," and Philip Seymour Hoffman put his own lovable sad-sack spin on the character in "The Savages." On Friday, Richard Jenkins, known for his supporting work in films ("Flirting With Disaster," "Rumor Has It") and television ("Six Feet Under"), will get his big starring break as a lonely economics professor who embarks on a journey of connection and self-discovery in "The Visitor."
Poirier, who wrote "Smart People," originally conceived of the project as a novel that would draw on his experience both as the son of a college professor (engineering) and as a college instructor himself, most recently at Bennington. One advantage to making his protagonist a literature professor, he says, was that he could endow the character with eloquence and self-awareness without straining credulity. At a pivotal point, for instance, Wetherhold tells another character that he hasn't had any "great epiphanies" or made "sweeping changes" to his personality. "That's something a professor would say," Poirier says. "They're living in a world of literature, a world where they're thinking about epiphanies and character changes all the time. So it seems natural that they'd apply that to themselves."
In other ways, the bored or blocked professor -- teaching the same texts in the same rooms to the same if interchangeable students, day in, day out, semester after semester -- perfectly embodies the ennui of any job. But in this case, that job brings the added value of involving performance. Thus the professor is the ideal personification of inertia without inert ness, suggests Poirier. "He's onstage every day."
Poirier acknowledges similarities between "Smart People" and "Wonder Boys," adding that he deliberately didn't make Wetherhold a creative-writing professor. "I think that creative-writing teachers have a reputation, at least within English departments, of being anti-intellectuals," he explains. "And they also have a reputation of sleeping with their students, like in 'The Squid and the Whale.' " Discuss!
Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed "The Visitor," initially didn't intend his protagonist, professor Walter Vale, to be an academic. "He was just a guy in his early 60s who had completely burnt out, just lost the passion for his vocation. And what did that mean? How do you reinvent yourself at a certain age?" After talking with a friend in academia who described the occupational hazard of phoning it in, McCarthy decided to make Walter an economics professor, despite misgivings about succumbing to cliche. "I didn't do any sweeping crane shots of the hallowed halls of Harvard or anything like that," he explains. "This guy is the foot soldier of academia; he's been serving his time and really has nowhere else to go at this point. I was interested in this guy because he's average. He's mediocre."
Mediocre but indelible: Jenkins's Professor Vale, while hewing to the lines of the thwarted academic, manages to infuse new life into what could have been a mere cliche (especially when he joins a drumming circle in Washington Square Park, but we digress). Still, while McCarthy succeeds in dodging hoary stereotypes in "The Visitor," too many of his colleagues don't try. Why, for example, is the classic college professor in movies so adamantly white and male (such films as Todd Solondz's "Storytelling" and "Mona Lisa Smile" with Julia Roberts notwithstanding). Even the most classic archetype can be timeless and of its time.