Movie review: 'Smart People' can't overcome low IQ

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2008 - 11:05 PM

Despite attempts to direct a playful lens on "Smart People," stereotypes fog it up.

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Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) embark on an unlikely romance in "Smart People."

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Smart people: They drive Saabs and Volvos, wear striped neck scarves and argyle sweaters. In other words, it's easy to identify the collegiate settings of director Noam Murro's feature film debut, "Smart People."

We quickly meet the corduroy- and cardigan-clad protagonist, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a middle-aged, potbellied widower and Carnegie Mellon English professor. Although he certainly looks brainy, we're led to believe he's even more ornery: Two early scenes have him parking his car diagonally, so as to hog two spots.

Idiocy, on the other hand, we shall know by its Carhartt jacket. One day at the office, in walks Lawrence's hapless brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who is, by the way, broke and in search of a place to crash, but otherwise happy as a clam. What happens next is old hat: The financially dependent, fun-loving brother rescues the self-sufficient but ill-tempered sibling.

An all-star cast includes Ellen Page reprising her cranky, witty "Juno" persona as the professor's smack-talking, Young Republican daughter Vanessa, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Janet Hartigan, the ER physician who treats Lawrence after a minor dustup.

Dr. Hartigan is held up as the ideal: open-minded and smart. She's a doctor, after all. But there's something irritating about the character. Her mood veers widely between sugar-sweet and angry -- her face often puckered as she sucks her teeth -- and we've never the faintest idea why.

When she agrees to meet Lawrence for a date, not only is it unbelievable on a purely physical level -- that a babe such as she would fall for the self-absorbed old professor -- but there's zero reason to believe these people would ever enjoy one another's company, let alone sharing a romantic candlelit dinner.

In fact, this underdeveloped, unconvincing story gives little reason to care for any of these eggheads. But its biggest offense is using stereotypes in place of any substantive character development: The lovebirds play Scrabble, for crying out loud.

The filmmakers clearly endeavored to turn a playful lens on so-called smart people. But instead, the film brandishes the same anti-intellectual cliché we've heard time and again: Extremely smart folks are inherently unpleasant, uptight and unhappy. 'Tis better to be a touch dumb.

  • SMART PEOPLE

    ★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use and some sexuality.

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