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Smart People

Some good performances and witty dialogue still can't lift this mildly entertaining but unexceptional comedy into a must-see. Really smart people will probably wait for the DVD release.


Dennis Quaid plays Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, a brilliant, bored and completely self-absorbed widower who may be super-intelligent but still can't figure out how to deal with a family that includes an independent-minded son (Ashton Holmes) and his eager over-achieving daughter (Ellen Page). As he meanders thru his seemingly miserable life, his freeloading adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church) shows up for an unwanted visit, making matters even worse. Despite these obstacles in his personal life, his only goal seems to be getting his pretentious un-publishable book published and becoming head of the University's English department. When his own stubborn stupidity brings on a sudden seizure that lands him in the hospital, he encounters a pretty doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who just happened to be one of his former students. Despite a couple of awkward dinners, he suddenly finds himself in love and moving into a new, unexpected phase of his life--one with lots of unforeseen complications.


It's nice to see Quaid attempt more character-driven roles as he gets older and for a while, his take on this dour professor is quite amusing. But the hopeless arrogance of the guy makes it hard for the audience to have any empathy despite the fact that he obviously loved his wife and still has the capacity to give it another whirl with former student Parker. Perhaps that's the problem. It's hard to buy these two as a couple in any way shape or form. Their mutual attraction seems unfathomable, and Parker's underwritten moody doctor is just as difficult to snuggle up to as Quaid's weary professor. She's one of those "movie characters" whose motivations constantly change only to keep the plot moving. The best acting belongs to supporting players Church and Page, who have some choice scenes together. Church proved in Sideways he is a natural comic talent and his goofy take on the n'er-do-well brother, plus pitch-perfect line, readings make him the best reason to plunk down 10 bucks for this thing. Page actually shot this picture pre-Juno, and there are similarities to her character in both--but as the daughter much older than her years she again proves she's a prodigious talent, the 'it' girl of the moment. Christine Lahti, a fine actress, is completely underused here as a colleague of Quaid's. Most of her part probably lays somewhere on a cutting room floor. She deserves better.


Perhaps in more experienced hands--say Sideways' Alexander Payne--this material could have worked, but under the guidance of first-time feature director Noam Murro, it does not snap, crackle OR pop. The successful commercials director looks like he hasn't mastered the language of the big screen, shooting his actors, particularly Parker, in unattractively lit close-ups. Although early scenes setting up Quaid's character have some life, the overall film is uneven in tone and dreary to watch. Setting the film in a drab environment like Pittsburgh doesn't help, but the murky cinematography is unimaginative. It's easy to see the potential a savvy Oscar-nominated producer like Michael London (Sideways, House of Sand and Fog, The Visitor) may have seen in acclaimed novelist Mark Poirier's screenplay about a bunch of smart people making dumb choices. But he's been let down by a debuting director who just doesn't have a handle on the situation.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.