Noam Murro's 'Smart People' (2008)

"What's it like to be stupid?"
"What's it like sitting by yourself at lunch every day?"
"It sucks."

Smart People is a typical story of a curmudgeon who softens when he finds potential in a new relationship. Lawrence Wetherhold is a widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon who is uninterested in his students, alienated from his kids, and in general a smug, pompous windbag. After suffering from a trauma-induced seizure, Lawrence reluctantly allows his adopted brother Chuck to move in with him and his daughter Vanessa because he cannot drive a car for six months due to the seizure. Vanessa has inherited her father's pretensions, which haven't ingratiated her to her schoolmates. She doesn't seem to have any friends or a very close relationship with her college-aged brother. Having assumed something of a caretaker role for her father since her mother's death, Vanessa constantly seeks his approval through academic achievement. Chuck befriends Vanessa and tries to loosen her up while Lawrence begins to date Janet, a former student of his whom he encountered when she treated him in the hospital.

I liked this movie better when it was called Wonder Boys and had likeable characters. Lawrence is so detestable that I have little interest in his redemption, and Vanessa is only slightly less loathsome. Such caustic characters work best in minor roles but can work as leads if they can generate laughs. Most of Smart People's comedy fails, which isn't surprising considering that two comedic attempts consist of showing Thomas Haden Church's naked butt. Vanessa's wonderfully hideous wardrobe gave me more laughs than any of the few acerbic one-liners Ellen Page manages to land.

Lawrence's storyline is completely stale and derivative (see the above-mentioned Wonder Boys as well as The Squid and the Whale), which contributes to my apathy for his character. Vanessa's arc is far more interesting and unique although, yes, a little creepy. Vanessa has taken on a "housewife" role for her father, and her jealousy of Janet borders on that of a lover scorned than a daughter neglected. And perhaps because she has something of an Electra complex, Vanessa makes a pass at Chuck when he simply pays attention to her and tries to be her friend. I find a girl whose ideas about sexual relationships have become screwed up to the point that she tries to make out with her uncle so much more interesting than another burned out professor. Had I written this movie, I would have made Vanessa the center of the film. Instead, her character arc feels incomplete.

I found the acting to be on the whole merely adequate. Dennis Quaid probably does more with the role than the script really requires, adopting the physicality of a man 10-20 years his senior to really accentuate how battered his wife's death has left Lawrence. Page is fine, but Vanessa is so underdeveloped that it's difficult for her to really shine. Sarah Jessica Parker finds herself in a similar situation and is pretty forgettable as the love interest. Church is very likeable as Chuck, despite the unfortunate facial hair, and he provides some low-key humor at times.

Smart People was billed as being "From the producer of Sideways," and those type of taglines always make me nervous. Producers aren't screenwriters or directors. The fact that they produce a good movie one year doesn't mean that any of the other films they produce will be at all similar. So don't expect a Sideways-caliber character study just because this film shares a producer and a supporting actor.