The Good: Good cast utilized fairly well, Moments of risk taking
The Bad: Woefully misrepresents people of intellect, Nothing exciting in bonus features, Moments of poor editing.
The Basics: When Lawrence Wetherhold begins dating and trying to take over the English department at the college he works at, the viewer discovers even the "smartest" people may be idiots.
Let's talk about stereotypes. Stereotypes are based upon prejudice and misinformation, judging entire groups based upon a limited idea of a very limited number of people from that group. Almost all the time, stereotypes are prejudicial and derogatory and are fairly transparent for what they are. So, for example, if someone were to characterize a black man as virile, watermelon-eating, fast-running illiterate, virtually everyone reading such a statement would recognize it as a series of stereotypes and it would likely reflect worse upon the person making such generalizations than upon the character in question.
Why, then, does our society consistently devalue people of intelligence and articulation and stereotype them? There seems to be a pretty fair open season on intellectuals where they are characterized as asocial, pompous jerks who are utterly incapable of getting along with another human being. They are characterized as intelligent in a test-taking way, but completely idiotic when it comes to interacting with people. Nowhere in my recent experiences has this been more true than in the film Smart People. Smart People stands as a monument to the viewpoint lauded and celebrated by people who are afraid of and prejudiced against people of intelligence.
Lawrence Wetherhold is a quiet English professor who is struggling to get a book published, raise his daughter and find some measure of peace in a world that seems content to surround him with obstacles he does not quite understand. Thwarted by a disgruntled student working the campus impound lot, Lawrence is wounded when he falls over the impound lot fence and finds himself in the care of another former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan. Unable to drive for six months, Lawrence turns to his slacker brother, Chuck, for help.
While Vanessa - Lawrence's daughter - makes moves on her adopted uncle, Lawrence begins dating Janet, who used to have a crush on him when she was a student. Unfortunately, Janet discovers Lawrence is a painful bore who has little going for him and as she works to extricate herself from a relationship with him, Lawrence resolves to become more accessible. In addition to allowing an editor to hatchet his book, he begins to pursue the position of chair of the English department, along the way discovering he is a truly miserable human being.
It is a rare thing for me to sit and enjoy a movie where the characters are almost universally miserable and in that regard, Smart People is most like Friends With Money (reviewed here!) in terms of its tone. It is fairly consistent in its oppressive mood where Lawrence mopes through his day. Like Friends With Money, there is little catharsis and it is hard to muster up a lot of empathy for most of the characters.
This might be even more true because the title of Smart People is woefully misleading. Outside Janet, none of the characters seem exceptionally intelligent. Instead, Lawrence seems to be bluffing his way through academia, Vanessa is snotty with few actual displays of intelligence (though she does get a 1600 on her SATs and manages to get into Stanford), and even Janet is so ridiculously out of touch with her emotional self that she altered her entire life over a paper that Wetherhold gave her a C on. The two black sheep of the family, neglected son James and the incompetent businessman Chuck, are given the trappings of greater intelligence in this skewed stereotype. So, for example, James - who is characterized by the other members of the family as the dim one - gets a poem published in The New Yorker. And Chuck, who drinks, gets Vanessa drunk and is so slovenly he never manages to show up for an appointment on time, is the family liberal. Only in the mind of one so grossly prejudiced against intelligencia would these traits be construed as the trappings of being smart. It does not require much in the way of deconstructing Smart People to realize that this film has an absolute disdain for the appearance of intellect.
Unfortunately, any sense of satire that might come from the presentation of Janet and the Wetherholds is undermined by the fact that anyone who has ever been around anyone of genuine intelligence will see this as a weak collection of obvious stereotypes. In other words, just like our parody of stereotypes at the beginning, the asocial, mumbling lecturer who doesn't notice how unsatisfied his date is and is raising a young Republican, reads as a collection of the most inane misconceptions about intellectuals.
As a result, it is hard to judge the characters in Smart People. Lawrence is so miserable, but he never strikes the viewer as particularly intelligent, either. Instead, whenever Janet states something and poses the question, "You knew that, right?" he simple nods and says "Of course." As a result, Lawrence is - at best - a poseur and one only wonders what negative experiences director Noam Murro and writer Mike Poirier had in academia that makes them think such a poseur could survive in a university setting so long.
Similarly, Vanessa - played by Ellen Page and the whole reason I picked up Smart People to watch - is more bratty than most young intellectuals and she does not so much learn anything in the course of the movie. Instead, she simply begins to emulate and hit on Uncle Chuck, then stupidly wonders why he would be avoiding her.
Murro goes for the cheapest of laughs with Chuck, featuring multiple shots of him sleeping with his bare buttocks exposed. It's amazing what passes for humor these days and if the first instance of this is juvenile, the second occurrence is just brain-numbingly insipid. Just as the supposedly smart people are treated as idiots, the audience is supposed to understand Chuck is somehow intellectually inferior because his butt ends up exposed while he sleeps. There is only so much insulting of the audience one might be expected to endure.
I've been on an Ellen Page kick of late and Smart People gives her a role different from the others I have seen her in. Unfortunately, it puts her in a role that is disturbingly lowbrow for her. Some of her roles have put her playing people who act young because they are young, but as Vanessa, she is forced to play somewhat mindlessly bratty without any real finesse that illustrates there is anything truly empathetic about her character.
Similarly, Thomas Haden Church is unfortunately utilized in a role that seems awfully familiar for those who have seen the actor in other things. And I'm not a fan of Sarah Jessica Parker's acting in general and Smart People does not give her a role that is meaty or interesting enough in any way that makes the viewer rethink their position on her.
In fact, of the main cast, the only one who does a decent job is Dennis Quaid. The last work of Quaid's I enjoyed was his role in American Dreamz (reviewed here!) and his characterization of Lawrence is a strikingly different performance. Not just the beard, but his whole body language is transformed into a sullen, slouching lecturer who is able to drone without any real affect. Quaid - who is often charismatic - plays this astonishingly well and makes Lawrence largely unlikable.
On DVD, Smart People looks and sounds fine - though there are some moments where the editing was noticeably choppy. There is a commentary track, blooper reel and deleted scenes, none of which made the movie any better. The featurettes repeat a bit of the information from the commentary track and add little in the way of real insight.
I went into Smart People ready to be stimulated and to laugh and when it was over, I just felt cheated. There are much better movies out there.
For other works with Ellen Page, please visit my reviews of:
An American Crime
X-Men III: The Last Stand
For other film review, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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