Film review: Smart People (2008), directed by Noam Murro
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a college English professor who has given up on just about everything. His wife died a few years ago, and he’s finding it hard to let go – he can’t even make himself get rid of her old clothes. His adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) keeps wanting to borrow money and his offspring, brainy Vanessa (Ellen Page) and secret poet James (Ashton Holmes), hardly speak to him, and his students think he’s an unfair prick.
Then one night, his car gets towed away, and trying to get into – or should I say back out of – the compound, he falls from a fence and has a trauma-induced seizure, which means he ends up in hospital under the watchful eye of Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). She “condemns” him to six months without being allowed to drive, so suddenly, his annoying adoptive brother has to be his chauffeur.
But maybe the doctor can charm the professor out of his shell and go from being a complete asshole to something resembling a human being …
Even though they’re completely different in most ways imaginable, this film reminded me of Wonder Boys (2000). Perhaps it’s because of the cynical middle-aged man trying to write (or actually, in this case, find a publisher), the college age youngsters, the attitude change to life in general, the pace … And maybe because both leads have had on-screen marriages with Kathleen Turner.
There are a lot of things going on in this film, and sadly, the son is nothing more than a plot device. He’s there to give some banter with his sister at the dining table, or to provide something for the other characters’ arcs to progress, but the lad himself doesn’t get a lot to say or do.
The adoptive brother tries getting his niece to loosen up a bit, as she’s too focused on getting top grades to enjoy living her life. Which is an interesting storyline with an interesting resolution – or journey there.
The main character is of course Lawrence, and his journey is perhaps the biggest. Not only is he out there on the dating scene again, but he has to overcome a lot of bitterness about life. I would have yelped with glee if it had turned out that the doctor and him had had something going on when she was a student of his (don’t worry, this is established very early on), because it would have given the story a whole other dimension, but no, he was a good boy. Which is also good.
While not being a film where something dramatic needs to happen at least once every ten minutes, the slower pace is nice – and it doesn’t feel slow. The characters are a bit too engaging for that. There’s also a great sense of humour underlying the serious tone of the film, which indeed makes it feel not as serious as it technically is. Smart People is not entertaining in the way that you’d perhaps expect. It’s not about the laughs or about dramatics, it’s about life. And somehow, that still entertains.
4 out of 5 lectures.