It's tough to watch
Smart People without drawing comparisons to the rather similar and
somewhat overlooked 2000 Michael Douglas film Wonder Boys.
Both films are about burnt-out, middle-aged literature professors who have
put their life on hold. Both have lost their wives (one to death, the
other to separation). Both have lost the passion for teaching, avoid
contact with their students, are
deeply embroiled in campus politics and seem unable to get published.
Both are surrounded by quirky family and friends. Both finally regain
their passion for life and learning through romantic connections with
another woman, an unexpected pregnancy and a friendship with an eccentric man.
The two films even take place at the same college - Carnegie-Mellon
University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the houses where the professors
live are so similar that I'd bet they are in the same neighborhood.
The comparisons do Smart
People no favors, because Wonder Boys was clearly a better film:
quirkier, darker and much less predictable. And, sad to say, Smart
People is not nearly as smart - either about human interaction or
the minutiae of campus life.
However, just because
Smart People is not as good as Wonder Boys, does that necessarily
make it a bad film? No, it certainly isn't - though it's not all that
good a film, either. Smart People is actually a pretty
intriguing idea, well-acted and mostly briskly paced, but the filmmakers
can't quite make it work as well as it should.
Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence
Wetherhold, a tenured widowed professor who has become a miserable jerk to
pretty much everyone he knows. The movie suggests that the loss of his
wife caused his anti-social streak, but you never get any real hint that
anyone ever liked him.
He has a son (Ashton
Holmes) who is a budding poet and trying hard to get out of his father's
world. Wetherhold's daughter on the other hand is turning into her
dad, she is an uptight, overly driven, socially-inept young Republican.
(The idea of a literature professor's daughter in the middle of a Blue State
trying to bond with her dad by becoming a humorless conservative seems like
a bit of a stretch, but okay...) The daughter is played by Ellen Page, who
filmed this before her breakthrough role of Juno, though it was not
released until after that film became a deserved hit - which is just as well
because this film is a much lesser showcase for the impressive young actress.
One day Wetherhold's
ne'er-do-well half-brother shows up looking for money or a place to stay a
while. Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) has never been to college but he
knows much more about life than Wetherhold does - despite the fact that he's
a bit of a scam artist.
Through a rather strained
series of events, Wetherhold gets a concussion and has a seizure and must
use his half-brother as a temporary chauffeur. In the meantime,
Wetherhold clumsily tries to get involved with his doctor (Sarah Jessica
Parker) - a former student who had a bit of a crush on him years before.
Thanks to the two newcomers in
his life, Wetherhold finally learns how to live and be happy - despite a
whole series of rather hackneyed complications meant to make his epiphany
seem harder earned than it really has to be.
Sadly, what starts out
interesting and quirky all too quickly settles into well-worn storytelling
paths - essentially leaving behind the gonzo intellectual vibe which made
the film intriguing and different. Beyond the similarities to
Wonder Boys, Smart People also has the misfortune to come out at about
the same time as Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, which also treads
this basic thematic ground with much more verve and imagination.
Which, again, is not to say
that Smart People is bad. It tells an interesting story and has
some appealing characters. However - like its protagonist - the movie
just played it way too safe when it should have been taking chances.
The professor himself would have probably graded his own life story with a
B- or a C.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: August 30, 2008.