The movie sports a fantastic cast: Dennis Quaid at his grumpy best as a misanthropic English professor, "Juno" starlet Ellen Page, the always ravishing Sarah Jessica Parker, and Thomas Haden Church, who seems to have trademarked the "lovable loser" character. Each actor gives a splendid performance, but ultimately "Smart People" falls flat. It gives us an almost unlikable protagonist, a beyond-awkward, contrived romance between Quaid and Parker and a bizarre, almost incestuous relationship between Page and Church.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Quaid) is the English professor that everybody hates; unabashedly pretentious, socially inept, intelligent to a fault and self-absorbed. A recent widower, he is the father of an angst-filled (and poorly developed) son James (Ashton Holmes) and a made-in-his-image daughter Vanessa (Page). After meeting a former student-turned-doctor Janet (Parker) in the hospital, they start a tentative relationship born out of her inexplicable college crush on him and his desperation to rebound from his various failures. All I could think of in their love scenes was The Police classic "Don't Stand So Close To Me." Yes, they're both adults in the movie, but it still seemed creepy and weird that a teacher and former student would be in love with each other, particularly when the teacher is such a curmudgeonly, self-absorbed windbag.
Page is known for turning on the charm as the titular character in "Juno," and she provides another endearing performance here, but like Quaid's character, Vanessa Wetherhold is almost unlikable. Vanessa is a serious-to-a-fault 17-year-old. She has a perfect SAT score, prim and proper sweaters, a picture of Ronald Reagan next to her bed and has taken up domestic duties since the death of her mother. Her stoic veneer is interrupted only by her adopted uncle Chuck (Haden Church), a pothead who drifts from odd job to side project to fund his slacker lifestyle. What's at first an amusing, innocent relationship between the two turns disjointed and (I hate to use the word so much) awkward when a drunk Vanessa kisses Chuck.
Instead of helping her break out of her shell, Vanessa reacts by becoming even more rigid and unpleasant, alienating her from viewers and robbing the film of a chance to prove that intelligent-yet-miserable people can change for the better if they let go a little.
Like Anderson's movies, "Smart People" does a fair job of examining the complexities of family relationships at their most dysfunctional (see "The Life Aquatic," "The Darjeeling Limited" and "The Royal Tenenbaums"). Despite the awkwardness of Quaid and Parker's teacher-and-former-student relationship, their performances make it seem almost plausible, highlighted by the widower's stumbling re-entry into the dating world and struggle to emerge from his bitter, almost hateful personality. Page's straight-as-an-arrow character has the promise of being dyanamic, but ultimately her desire to be a perfect student, daughter and caretaker interferes with any meaningful change. We're left only with the vague promise that a new life, and presumably a new self, awaits her at college in California. Haden Church is predictably the heart and soul of the film, the real "smart" person despite the fact that he is actually a screw-up. While we're thankfully spared the clichéd enlightening speech which makes the other characters discover their emotional failures, it's nonetheless all-too-obvious what his function in the film is. Murro's direction choices are effective but boring. Acoustic guitar-heavy tracks permeate the entire movie, blending together into monotony; at one point I asked myself if there is a scene in the movie without acoustic guitar, and I wasn't sure of the answer. There's no fancy camera work or special effects, just lots of close-ups to maximize drama via facial expressions. Jessica Parker is as fashionable as always, which is great except that it seems out of place on a 30-year-old ER doctor who still has a crush on her miserable college professor. Still-shots during the closing credits seem like a cheap throw-away gag stolen from better films, and don't fit the disaffected tone of the movie. The final scene is supposed to make us believe that Weatherhold has changed his misanthropic ways and that he and "doctor girlfriend" Janet will live happily ever after, but the evidence preceding it made me question if he could stick to his new ways. By the end of the movie Page's character seems no better off than where she started, but maybe it's Murro's intention to show us that some people can change their ways and discover what it really means to be "smart" and others simply cannot. Ultimately "Smart People" shows a glimmer of hope that Murro will become a smart director, but he'll have to find a way to distinguish himself, rather than becoming a watered-down retreat of Wes Anderson.