“Smart People” is the latest release from Indieville’s dysfunction tap, and this time the misfiring family is an academically inclined bunch impaired by grief and excessive gray matter.
The love story’s flat and the dramatic thrust is weak in this rocky seriocomedy, though the supporting characters prove dynamic and distinctive.
Basically, bright people do blockheaded things, says this movie, which presents this hardly revelatory notion via a romantic story and quirky demonstrations of familial sputter. The director is a newcomer, Noam Murro. The protagonists are a Mensa bunch who pen critical tomes and ace the SAT but are clueless to basic human factors.
Larry (Dennis Quaid), a disconnected Pittsburgh literary professor, has a dead wife he can’t let go of, a manuscript nobody will publish, and contempt for his students and anyone else he deems dumber than himself.
At home, his 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), displays similar issues. A friendless, hyper-achieving Young Republican, she shares her dad’s grief-related malaise and disdains unintelligent folk.
Larry gets a double shakeup when he falls for former student Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) — the doctor who treats him after his obstinateness causes a stupid accident — and lets his mooching, layabout brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), stay with the family.
Buttoned-up Vanessa bonds with life-embracing Chuck, who loosens up the teen by getting her stoned and drunk.
Among off-center fare featuring detached intellectual sorts, the film doesn’t meander as engrossingly as “Wonder Boys” or understand parent-child dynamics as keenly as “The Squid and the Whale.”
Murro, previously a director of commercials, delivers little in the way of sustained dramatic drive, and, along with novelist-turned-screenwriter Mark Poirier’s spotty character development, this hurts the love story.
Quaid and Parker are credible, but their characters receive such lukewarm, low-pilot treatment that the passion can’t resonate. Janet seems to exist solely to awaken Larry.
Still, there’s at least half a solid movie here, thanks to the general credibility of the story, the zingers in the screenplay, and anything involving Vanessa and Chuck. She’s 17 but acts middle-aged, he’s vice-versa, and, as played by the acerbic Page and the deadpan Church (never mind the comparisons to their “Juno” and “Sideways” incarnations), the pair click in funny, vital ways, lifting the movie over the middling mark.
The supporting cast also includes Ashton Holmes in the underdeveloped role of Larry’s college-student son, whose literary talent the self- absorbed Larry fails to recognize.
Smart People (2 and half stars)
Starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page
Written by Mark Poirier
Directed by Noam Murro
Running time 1 hour 33 minutes