Smart People is a great dramedy--a mixture of comedy and drama. It goes for the Smart Laugh, not the Big Laugh. Mark Poirier, the son of a MIT professor, wrote a Smart script, and Smart Director Noam Murro very smartly cast some of the smartest actors around: Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Dennis Quaid. I loved it, because I am also very Smart, but it didn't do as well at the box office or with the critics (except it was the Number One DVD at Netflix for a while) as it deserved. That Smarts.
I think the problem with this movie is that like the characters, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and his daughter Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page), it doesn't suffer fools gladly. Thus, for a large portion of the audience, it is over their heads, and they feel like it is condescending, supercilious, and they feel patronized. As Lawrence's adopted brother, Chuck Wetherhold (Thomas Haden Church) says of Vanessa: "You're a monster!"
And that is an understatement. In another scene she says to her father, "Theresa Sternbridge practically runs a soup kitchen and she's always seen posing in photos with crack babies and dying, old, crusty ladies. And do you know why? She scored in the 45th percentile on her SAT. People like you and me don't need to compensate."
Although Chuck sees that Vanessa, and her role model father, are both monsters, in spite or because of their intelligence, he still loves them and tries to help. Did I mention that Chuck is a screw up, down on his luck, and an opportunist who sees a win/win situation for himself when his brother has a seizure and cannot drive. He will have a place to stay, and 3 squares, for driving his brother around--albeit very unreliably.
Though he is not the greatest driver, he really has a lot of intelligence about people. For instance, at a Christmas Dinner, where Vanessa's brother James Wetherhold (Ashton Holmes) complains about the rubbery ham (Vanessa used a recipe downloaded from the Internet written in the archaic French of Louis the XIV, and translated by her, maybe not as well as she thinks (a great example of her over achiever approach to cooking); when former student and now doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) drops in unexpectedly Chuck explains "These children haven't been properly parented in many years. They're practically feral. That's why I was brought in. To keep them from killing each other."
All of the characters have a story arc, where they have an epiphany, and reach a greater awareness; but the Father/Daughter dynamic between the professor and his precocious progeny is perhaps the most complicated. He takes her for granted and is even less involved with his son James, while she idolizes him and emulates his self absorbed and condescending approach to other, less worthy, people.
Lawrence Wetherhold: I don't think you're very happy Vanessa.
Vanessa Wetherhold: Well, you're not happy. And you're my role model.
She tries to sabotage his relationship with Janet, but he is more than capable of sabotaging it all by himself. However, with a little help and coaching from brother Chuck, perhaps he will prevail after all.
By the way, fabulous performance by Thomas Haden Church, comparable to his character and performance in Sideways. Chuck was one of my favorite characters.
That Ellen Page really nailed her role goes without saying. Her only danger now is being forever typecast as the wise-beyond-her-years waif. What other young actress could convincingly play someone stressed out about getting a perfect SAT score?
Sarah Jessica Parker was smart and sassy, yet she was also a bit damaged, and had a lesson to learn. Great scene when Janet first meets Chuck.
Dennis Quaid wore a fat suit and had a shuffling walk, like he had something stuffed up inside him. He looked very different than previous roles, and created a quite convincing persona. He really conveyed his utter disregard for those below him on the bell curve of intelligence. He was very annoying, as his role called for that, but gradually, perhaps, he would come around. One sub plot was about him getting a book published, and as you could imagine by the dry academic title, there was little chance of that happening. But when he submitted it under a title suggested by his daughter Vanessa, YOU CAN'T READ!, it finally was accepted.
Bloomberg: I got to the third section where I noticed a certain marketable tone, the surly smarter-than-thou @$$#0[3 tone.
Their strategy was that it would be attacked on NPR and three weeks later he'd be interviewed defending it on Charlie Rose. Kind of like when you have a lemon, make lemonade.
Last but not least, Ashton Holmes as James Wetherhold and Camille Mana as Missy Chin, one of Lawrence's students, were both good in their small but pivotal roles. James had good reason to stay away from the toxic environment he called home as much as possible, but when he was there, he made a quiet impact.
This was the first big screen role for Camille Mana, but I recognized her from the UPN sitcom One on One where she played Lisa Sanchez. She is very smart, having graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in economics after only 6 semesters, and I predict great things for her.
In Smart People she keeps popping up as the thorn in her professor's side, and if he wasn't so self absorbed, perhaps he would remember her name. She and James even hook up, and you almost wish the focus had been on them a bit more. However, they function as a reminder that other people have lives just as interesting if not more so than the self absorbed professor and his equally self absorbed daughter. When James gets a poem published in The New Yorker, Lawrence is surprised to learn that he writes poetry. Perhaps he should listen to what other people have to say once in a while.
I really liked this film because I could relate to the Smart People, and how hard it is for them to be humble. Yes, I too have a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but after years of isolation, I would suffer them more than gladly. Though I may have an extremely high IQ, there are many different kinds of intelligence, and I wish that I had a little more intelligence about people. Perhaps I can get a high score on an intelligence test, but sometimes I can be a complete idiot.
OTHER NOTABLE ROLES OF SMART PEOPLE CAST MEMBERS
Sex and the City - The Movie (Special Edition) (2008) .... Sarah Jessica Parker was Carrie Bradshaw
Juno (Single-Disc Edition) (2007) .... Ellen Page was Juno MacGuff
Spider-Man 3 (2007) .... Thomas Haden Church was Sandman / Flint Marko
An American Crime (2007) .... Ellen Page was Sylvia Likens
What We Do Is Secret (2007) .... Ashton Holmes was Rob Henley
Normal Adolescent Behavior: Havoc 2 (2007) .... Ashton Holmes was Sean
Hard Candy (2005) .... Ellen Page was Hayley Stark
A History of Violence (2005) .... Ashton Holmes was Jack Stall
Sideways (Widescreen Edition) (2004) .... Thomas Haden Church was Jack
Spanglish (2004) .... Thomas Haden Church was Mike the Realtor
Far From Heaven (2002) .... Dennis Quaid was Frank Whitaker
Postcards from the Edge (1990) .... Dennis Quaid was Jack Faulkner
Great Balls of Fire! (1989) .... Dennis Quaid was Jerry Lee Lewis
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985) .... Sarah Jessica Parker was Janey Glenn
Footloose (1984) .... Sarah Jessica Parker was Rusty
Vanessa Wetherhold: You should really make your bed. It sets the tone for the day.
Chuck Wetherhold: But, how do you know what tone I was trying to set?