April 17, 2008

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Smart People (R)
Dennis Quaid is wonderfully hateable as a self-absorbed professor not dealing with his family in Smart People, an affected but occasionally chuckle-worthy gin gimlet of a comedy.

Because, my, isn’t it tart?

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a college English professor enchanted by the sound of his own voice and impressed by his own intelligence. Too bad he is the only one. His students think, correctly, that he is a pompous ass and his college-aged son, James (Ashton Holmes), has given up trying to talk to his father because he knows he’s really only listening for the parts that are about him. His only real fan is his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a junior member of the pompous ass club and a girl rather desperate for her father’s approval. But even she seems to think the future might be brighter somewhere else — she’s planning on ditching the family home in Pennsylvania for college in California.

As insufferable as a “healthy” Lawrence is, he becomes absolutely loathsome when he suffers a seizure and is told by the emergency room doctor, doctor Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), that he can’t drive. Even Vanessa refuses to be his driver, leaving Lawrence in the slacker care of Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), his “adopted brother,” a phrase that Lawrence repeats as if to reinforce the definite lack of a genetic relationship. Chuck sells business cards (or, at one point in the movie, a weight loss scam), is always in need of money, and happens, at the time of Lawrence’s seizure, to be between homes. His presence tends to bring out the human edge of everybody — he encourages PG-13 behavior on the part of Vanessa and helps along a budding relationship between Lawrence and Janet.

Even with his slacker charm, Chuck isn’t particularly likeable. No one in Smart People is particularly likeable, unless you count how much I liked getting to hate Lawrence. Not since Jeff Bridges’ character in The Door in the Floor has there been a character who is, strictly speaking, not evil but still so wonderfully, deliciously horrible. When Janet points out that he has been talking uninterrupted for 46 minutes during their date, the look on Quaid’s face is brilliant — frozen, nose-in-the-air, with a look that says an indifferent “So? Aren’t you just fascinated by me?”

This bitterly sarcastic bunch would be a chore to have dinner with but, here safely on the other side of the screen, we can delight and find the mean humor in their unpleasantness. Of course, scratch away those defensive shields of put-downs and there is some heart in these characters. Vanessa shares little with Juno (the slang-talking title character that got Page an Oscar nomination) but she does share a youthful uncertainty about her own personality, an uncertainty that leads her to be an insufferable snot to keep whatever the real her is from getting hurt. These moments of vulnerability don’t quite save the movie from its smarty-pants pose but they do make it frequently genuine and offer some much-needed sugar to go with all of that tart-to-the-point-of-sour black comedy. B-

Rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use and for some sexuality. Directed by Noam Murro and written by Mark Poirier, Smart People is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films