Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker, from

Dir. Noam Murro
(R) ★ ★

Smart People periodically brought to mind films with similar subjects and tones: most recent, Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, the latter of which Smart People director Noam Murro professes to have been influenced by. They are also morosely comic films about intellectuals of impressive scholarship who nevertheless are emotional infants, unable to manage their relationships and consequently hiding behind their knowledge. The previous films were better, funnier, more insightful. Smart People is comparatively simplistic in its psychology; the central family’s problems are all traced back to the death of the matriarch, and I’m not sure that quite cuts it. There are wounds here that seem to go deeper, stretch back farther.

Of The Savages, I wrote, “It’s a marvel that [writer-director] Jenkins takes such unhappy people and finds the humor in them … It makes the whole story palatable, keeps it from descending into a dreary recitation of grievances.” Smart People does not have the same success. Production designer Patti Podesta has given the film a very deliberate palate of browns, grays, and faded tones. You will be hard pressed to find a vivid color in any frame, and the characters seem to have been drawn with the same brush. This is a story of depressed people, but the film is too often depressive, and we grow weary.

The main characters are a mopey bunch; they grumble their way through their lives. Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is an English professor at Carnegie Mellon who hates his students and his fellow faculty. He wants to be the head of the English department, if only to assert his superiority; the actual job hardly interests him. His teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is sophisticated beyond her years. She is cold and ambitious; upon learning that her father has been hospitalized with a concussion, she explains that she can’t visit because she’s studying for the SAT. Lawrence has an adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) and always makes a point of saying that he is adopted; Chuck is underachieving, strapped for cash, and bouncing between get-rich-quick schemes, though possibly slightly better adjusted than his brother. James (Ashton Holmes) is Lawrence’s son; we see less of him because he stays as far from his family as possible.

A fifth character comes from outside of the family. She is Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a medical doctor and Lawrence’s former student. She also has baggage, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, which makes it difficult to understand why she had a crush on him as a student, or why she begins a relationship with him in the present. There may be a good man hidden deep, deep, deep beneath his slouching posture and pompous lecturing, but it remains hidden for the majority of their courtship. She has a funny line about a paper she once wrote for him: “You said that the writing was sophomoric. I was a freshman.” His response is to correct her word usage, which should have been her cue to run far and run fast. It’s tough to invest in a romance when we have unbalanced sympathies; Janet could do better.

On the DVD commentary, Murro and writer Mark Poirier boast that Lawrence does not have any third-act epiphanies. They regard this as realism and call him nuanced, but it strikes me as a lack of character development. He is a sad sack from beginning to end. Ostensibly it is because of his wife’s death seven years ago, but I think not. Janet was his student before his wife died; he was miserable then as well, and Janet has the scars to prove it.

Careful not to reveal the plot, I will say that by the end things have begun to change, but these changes seem to manifest themselves without cause. What is the catalyst? The beginning of his romance with Janet? The arrival of the adopted brother, who Lawrence has never liked or respected? Possibly, but I’m not quite convinced. I needed more from the screenplay, more depth in the characterizations. The actors are not at fault; this is a very well acted film, particularly by Parker, who makes Janet serious-minded, sad but not self-pitying, and level-headed. We learn the least about her, but I found myself the most interested in her life. I think the other characters should aspire to her, in spite of her dubious taste in men.

The third film I was reminded of was Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, the masterpiece from 2000 that starred Michael Douglas as a college professor in a mid-life crisis. It is unlucky for Smart People that the films so resemble one another, because most movies of any subject suffer in comparison to that great film. Wonder Boys was warmer, with a hopeful glow in its photography and a screenplay by Steve Kloves overflowing with humor and wisdom. But the greatest difference, I think, is its protagonist, Grady Tripp, who is disheveled but paternal, despairing but charismatic. We see him struggle and root for him, sometimes in spite of him. He too is the object of affection for a younger woman, but unlike Lawrence, we don’t wonder what she sees in him.

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