Review: Smart People
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
Following my just-in-time arrival to a screening of Smart People, I had every intention of taking a much-needed restroom break at some point during the movie. It goes without saying that films are meant to be enjoyed in their entirety, but my accustomedness to this year's recent crop of mediocre fare tricked me into thinking I'd find an appropriate spot for an intermission. That opportunity never came, because scene by scene, this aptly titled joy of a comedy is wicked good – certainly too good to be interrupted by some pesky call of nature.
Written and directed by two first-timers (Mark Poirier and Noam Murro, respectively), Smart People is the story of a quartet of witty, well-spoken characters, set in and around Carnegie Mellon University. Lawrence Weatherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a CMU Lit. professor who, in the wake of his wife's death, has built up such contempt for his students and colleagues that he sets the clock ahead when a needy pupil shows up near the end of his office hours. Vanessa (Ellen Page) is Lawrence's overachieving 17-year-old daughter, a bitter, academic recluse who's inherited her father's intelligence and cynicism in equal amounts. Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) is Lawrence's freeloading adopted brother, who – in exchange for room and board – shows up to be Lawrence's chauffeur after a mild seizure deems him ineligible to operate a vehicle for six months. Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the benevolent doctor who treats Lawrence for his head trauma, and just happens to be one of his former students (which resulted in her dropping an English major to pursue medicine). As Lawrence and Janet rekindle what began as an unconsummated teacher-student crush, Vanessa prepares for college and acts out against the world, and Chuck comfortably and aimlessly floats through mid-life, the film catches what can only be described as the very best moments.
This is a movie that is about, starring, and for its title. The sharpness of the wit within Poirier's hilarious script is matched only by its warmth of heart. His characters are crafted in a way that makes them both intimidating and accessible, which in effect renders them quite human. Lawrence is bitter and socially withdrawn, a not-so-attractive quality that leads to some truly funny scenarios when he must depend on those he's wronged in the past. Vanessa has no friends because she's too busy learning Spanish, attending Young Republicans meetings, and critiquing everything around her; and in a great third-act line exchange, her response to her father's inquiry about her unhappiness is: “Well, you're my role model.” The arrivals (or re-emergences, rather) of Janet and Chuck serve as these two rigid individuals' salvations from themselves. Janet helps Lawrence find the road back to love, yet knowing what's best for both of them, she leaves it to him to make the choice to walk down it. Chuck makes repeated attempts to coax Vanessa into loosening up, but once she does (with the aid of a little too much booze), he backs off and allows her to realize she needs to learn how to do so on her own. All four of these characters are highly intelligent in their own ways. What splits them in half is that Lawrence and Vanessa use facts and impressive vocabularies to define their lives, while Janet and Chuck simply use them to compliment theirs. The tagline for the film is “sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn,” and it's as appropriate as its name.
One of the very best things about Smart People is its perfect casting. The four characters are tailor-made for the actors who play them. Dennis Quaid's adequacy as a middle-aged thespian is often put to good use with father figure-type roles (see In Good Company), but rarely do they possess this much quirky color. Lawrence is a scruffy, downtrodden jerk, and Quaid's steely presence is an ideal fit. As Janet, Sarah Jessica Parker throws that terrible title of “World's Un-Sexiest Woman” back into the faces of the foolish editors of Maxim magazine by showing them what a smart and beautiful actress really looks like. She's as leggy as she is brainy, and she brings the same awkward intensity to this woman as she did to Carrie Bradshaw for years (and will again in theaters this May). Thomas Haden Church proves that a wise doofus truly can exist, making Chuck both a voice of reason and comic relief. And Ellen Page, fresh from her Oscar nomination, takes that same angsty energy she channeled into Juno MacGuff and redirects it to create the kind of person her former character would loathe. I'm not sure if Poirier penned his script with these specific stars in mind, but it would come as no surprise.
Smart People delivers a hefty amount of side-splitting one-liners, even though some of them are catered to the sharper crayons in the audience (let's just say one could could pick out the real smart people in my audience because of which jokes made them giggle). Still, regardless of your I.Q., it's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying the pleasure of these People's company. I enjoyed it so much that I nearly forgot my body's cry for help. When the lights came up in the theater, I left my seat and headed for the men's room – with a great, big smile.