Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widowed professor of Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon, is the central "smart person" in Smart People. He's a guy who would be able to spell "dysfunctional" with ease but never recognize the word as a description of himself and his family. Lawrence is acerbic and demanding, yet wholly uninterested in his students, family and career. He's remote toward his two nearly grown children, James (Ashton Holmes) and Vanessa (Ellen Page), a high school senior whose character traits are even worse than her old man's.
It's unclear how long ago Lawrence's wife died. It is clear, however, that he still grieves for the person who must have lent some humanity to this family, and that "know-it-all" Vanessa fills in as a surrogate housewife when she's not acing the SATs and volunteering for the Young Republicans.
Commercials director Noam Murro and novelist-turned-screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier make a distinctive, if not entirely successful, debut. Poirier's language is often delicious, highlighted by well-aimed barbs, and Murro evidences none of the ADD flash that often makes commercials directors ill-equipped to handle character arcs.
Yet there's something amiss in Smart People. The movie fails to get a fire going among any of the characters. In the beginning, Lawrence's ne'er-do-well brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) shows up with the hope of couch-surfing for a while. The dissolute brother is set up as a foil for the tight-assed Vanessa, but the pairing is schematic. Sarah Jessica Parker is cast in the thankless role of the love interest, an ER doctor who patches up Lawrence after a fall and remembers him as her former teacher. That this accomplished woman would become involved with this nightmare boyfriend strains credulity. It's hard to imagine Lawrence working up a passion for anything, even sex.
The performances are all good, but only Church is fully believable. No amount of beard, paunch, slouch and sarcasm can disguise Quaid's innate likableness as an actor. Page, of Juno, is one of the great acting discoveries of recent years, but she's already too old to pass for a high school senior.
These characters have a lot of potential, and it's a shame we don't come to understand them better. Smart people, dumb choices: It's true for both the characters and the filmmakers.