Smart People offers mildly diverting entertainment, but overall is possibly a disappointment. It’s the story of widowed Eng Lit lecturer Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), something of a pompous windbag, his children Vanessa (Ellen Page), the straight A high school student and James (Ashton Holmes) the university student who feels his father has forgotten him, and finally Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the no-good adopted brother of Lawrence. The ‘smart’ people of the title are arguably Lawrence and Vanessa who are brilliantly learned but socially inept. (Chuck and James just get out of the way much of the time.)
The ‘inciting incident’ is an accident that takes Lawrence to ER where the head physician turns out to be an ex-student who swapped to biology and then medical school. This is Janet played by Sarah Jessica Parker. I think this is the fault line in the narrative. The ‘romantic comedy’ that follows is conventional and not particularly comic, whereas the other antics of the family quartet are worth watching. This isn’t a criticism of Ms Parker, rather of the writing which creates a relationship I didn’t find believable.
The most entertainment in the film comes in the opening section when Lawrence is being curmudgeonly and horrible to his students who give back as good as they get. I’m not sure that there is a filmic equivalent of the literary genre of the campus novel, but that’s the repertoire that this narrative should have drawn from. The nearest equivalent film from recent years is Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. (Which used the same university, Carnegie Mellon in some scenes, both films being made around Pittsburgh – does West Pennsylvania have a significance I’m missing?) Wonder Boys scores by keeping its plot much more clearly linked to university life. In the UK, we’ve had two great TV series based on campus life – The History Man (1981, based on Malcolm Bradbury’s novel) and A Very Peculiar Practice (1986) – plus adaptations of David Lodge novels. In America there have been Alison Lurie novels and others based on the politics of campus life. These make great comedy. Smart People tries hard to be literate but wastes the opportunities that scholarly bickering throws up. In a Lodge novel, the Sarah Jessica Parker character would have been an academic carving up Lawrence’s reputation – and perhaps taking him to bed for fun. A limp romantic comedy isn’t a substitute.
Ellen Page is remarkable, but wasted here, I fear. Dennis Quaid has a wonderful sloblike demeanour – I spent most of the film wondering if his paunch was prosthetic. In the end, perhaps I’m being harsh on a new director and a new writer. It is entertaining, but could have been more. As is often the case, the most fun is to be had reading the IMDB user comments and the ratings. As usual, the most positive ratings come from ‘Females under 18’, but the lowest ratings are given by ‘Females aged 30+’ – perhaps, like me, they found the Janet character too underdeveloped.