Who’d have thunk it? In American entertainment, brainy curmudgeons are suddenly sexy. First came TV’s wildly popular Dr. House, the dysfunctional genius with a massive chip on his shoulder. Steve Carell and Philip Seymour Hoffman played professorial grouches in Little Miss Sunshine and The Savages, respectively. And in Smart People, Dennis Quaid — a leading man so traditional he got to star in The Right Stuff — takes his turn at growing facial hair, dressing badly and snarling. Are we a nation of people who think they’re smarter than their peers? Or, with an election looming, are we yearning for a more cerebral leader, even one who’s an arrogant jerk?
Smart People doesn’t answer these questions, but it does suggest one thing: When intelligence becomes a crowd pleaser, it also becomes less . . . smart. Writer Mark Jude Poirier, who adapted his novel to the screen, conceives the characters in very broad terms. On one side are the uptight crew: widowed English professor Lawrence Wetherhold and his precocious teenage daughter (Ellen Page), who preaches intellectual superiority and wants her dad to stay exactly the way he is. On the other side is Wetherhold’s feckless adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church), a simple guy who knows how to enjoy life. Plot contrivance plunks the oaf down in the prof’s household, where he encourages Quaid to date neurotic ER doc Sarah Jessica Parker, and teaches Young Republican Page how to drink and smoke weed like a normal teen.
This is one of those movies casting makes or breaks, and first-time director Noam Murro scored a good ensemble. Church, who snagged an Oscar nomination as the dim-witted but decent foil to a smart guy in Sideways, plays a similar role here. With his guileless, cotton-mouthed delivery — as if he were perpetually waking with a hangover — he garners laughs from simple observations such as “These children haven’t been properly parented in many years.” Watching him interact with the prissy, scarily articulate Page (Juno) is good fun.
But there’s a lot less chemistry between Quaid and Parker, whose budding relationship is at the movie’s center. The problem is, it’s a sitcom relationship: He has quirks and she has quirks, but neither is a full-fledged character. Quaid seems to have borrowed Hugh Laurie’s mannerisms and wardrobe: He keeps getting huffy and popping his eyes, reviving memories of the most misanthropic windbag who ever gave you a C. But beyond the tics, he gives us very little sense of where the attitude is coming from.
Nerds may not be the cutest or most sociable folks, but one thing they aren’t is generic. Like Trekkies or policy wonks, hard-core academics tend to have a pet field they won’t stop talking about. Quaid’s character makes this mistake on his first date with Parker: After a good half-hour of listening to him pontificate, she’s ready for the check. The thing is, we don’t hear enough of Wetherhold’s monologue to get a sense that he’s anything but a pompous ass who needs the Love of a Good Woman. If he ever had genuine intellectual passion, it’s gone now. The movie suggests his wife’s death is responsible, but here again, it fails to fill us in.
In The Squid and the Whale, Jeff Daniels played a professor who felt real: When he drooled over a hospital nurse because she looked like Monica Vitti in an Antonioni film, the detail was perfect. (Even his lusts were pretentious.) Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed that movie, clearly knows the milieu of “smart people” — and just how painfully dumb they can be. In films like Smart People, by contrast, high I.Q. becomes just another foible: It’s all about rattling off SAT words and gloating when other people can’t keep up. If this is intellect, it’s not hard to see why a large segment of the public prefers to watch Fox News.