If you enjoyed Michael Douglas’ turn as the wayward academic in “Wonder Boys” (2000) and Richard Jenkins’ in Tom McCarthy’s current “The Visitor,” there’s a good chance you’ll also have a good time watching Dennis Quaid as a similar character in “Smart People.” He plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed, burnt-out professor of English Literature at Carnegie Mellon who can’t be bothered to learn his students’ names and has written a book that’s been rejected by publisher after publisher. His only real interest is in securing appointment as the department head, although his position as chair of the search committee puts him at a disadvantage in that regard and he’d obviously skirt most of the job’s responsibilities.
The portrait of Wetherhold as an academic is keen-eyed and highly amusing—his run-ins with students and interaction with fellow faculty are gruesomely funny. But the focus of Mark Jude Poirier’s script is more on his personal life, especially his troubled relationship with his children: James (Ashton Holmes), a student (and aspiring poet) living a university dorm with whom he has little real contact, and Vanessa (Ellen Page), a driven high school senior (and Republican activist) who’s determined to get into the college of her choice and has taken on the duty of keeping house for her father in her mother’s absence.
But Lawrence’s circumstances suddenly change when he suffers a concussion falling from a fence in an ill-advised effort to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car. Precluded from driving for six months by physician Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), he’s forced to accept the offer of his ne’er-do-well adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) to move into the family home and serve as his driver. After a rocky start Vanessa will be infatuated with her happy-go-lucky, free-spirited “uncle.” Meanwhile the professor himself will tentatively try a romance with Hartigan, who turns out to be a former student who’d once had a crush on him.
It’s pretty obvious where all this is headed. Wetherhold will be teased out of his emotional aridity by the young doctor, and Vanessa will be loosened up by Chuck. (The odd man out is James, which proves a pretty thankless role for Holmes.) But though the plot treads fairly predictable ground overall, the particular episodes are for the most part winning, and the dialogue is often snappy.
And the performances are strong, even when the material isn’t. Playing against type, Quaid is a nicely rumpled Wetherhold, managing to convey the guy’s condescension without making him simply nasty. Page does the same sort of overachiever shtick that Reese Witherspoon did in “Election,” with equal success. And Church brings as much goofy charm to Chuck as he did to his character in “Sideways.” If Parker comes off less well, that’s partly due to the fact that Hartigan isn’t as well developed as the other characters—except, of course, for the nearly invisible James, whom Holmes can’t really bring to life. To compensate, there are some excellent bits in smaller parts. And the rather drab, muted look given the film by production designer Patti Podesta and cinematographer Toby Irwin suits the academic setting. The guitar-based score by Nuno Bettencourt seems rather muted, too, but that’s preferable to being overbearing.
Maybe it’s no accident that both “Wonder Boys” and this picture are set in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the Pennsylvania city has a ready supply of quirky professors whose antics make for good theatre. “Smart People” isn’t a work of genius, but it’s clever enough to make you forgive its missteps.