Dysfunctional families are nothing new in American entertainment. Sitcoms from All in the Family to The Simpsons are founded on clueless patriarchs, bedraggled mothers, and their motley spawn.
But lately film is having a run on families defined by bickering ennui. The Savages, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and now Smart People chronicle the lives of unhappy academics and assorted eggheads.
The principal contention of such films is that the smarty-britches set is knee-deep in misery. These abject screen academics dwell in colorless professional and personal worlds, residents of forlorn places like Pittsburgh or Buffalo, where the gray skies and perpetual winter advertise their pain and angst.
Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is an archetypal movie academic. Hes a middle-aged sadsack in a corduroy blazer with a soft, sagging middle who harbors a profound disdain for the students he teaches. His meetings with fellow academics resemble a quorum of undertakers more than anything: a group of pasty, joyless scolds who rail about the subjugation of women and seethe with professional jealousy. But there is no spark of life to these scenes in the Academy; nothing to suggest these are real people with real problems.
So how do we know Lawrence is smart people? Because Noam Murro (in his directorial debut after a successful career making commercials) wont let us forget it.
Lawrence is smart because he pontificates about Victorian literature.
Characters accuse him countless times of being pompous and arrogant.
He plays Scrabble.
Too much smarts equals sadness in so many movies, as if the ever-present plaintive guitar-strumming on the soundtrack didnt warn you. Lawrences braniac burden is magnified by the death of his wife years ago. The pall cast by that death hangs over Lawrence and his entire family: his surly but nondescript Carnegie Mellon undergrad son James (Ashton Holmes), but mostly his unhappy Stanford-bound Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a right-wing spin on Pages equally deadpan, blue-state Juno. The only source of levity is Lawrences adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a sporadically employed pot-smoking goofus. Chuck moves in with the family to chauffeur Lawrence after an accident that has left Lawrence unable to drive.
Like so much in Smart People, screenwriter and novelist Mark Poirier overcooks this complicating incident. Poirier has a tendency to throw in every plot twist and bit of slapstick he can get his hands on, turning the proceedings into a gooey mess. He piles on the incidents: Lawrence begins to date the emergency room doctor Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) who treats him after his accident. She also happens to be a former student who cant get over the C Lawrence gave her years ago.
Peeking out from her artfully disheveled hair, Parkers doctor lady is hard to distinguish from her Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, slinking down hospital corridors in her pencil skirts and bedroom hair. Intelligence is a liability in Smart People, because it keeps these people locked in their heads unable to experience joy. The only truly happy character is Chuck, an irresponsible toddler in Lawrences words, but a contented toddler. As is the wont of such stories, key people must unlock Lawrence and Vanessas emotional prison doors. Janet punctures Lawrences wall of snotty disdain, though many may have a hard time buying them as a couple. And Chuck, in several weirdly unpleasant scenes, gets his 17-year-old niece stoned (Great. Im in an Afterschool Special, Vanessa quips) and then drunk in order to help her overcome her nerdy solitude.
Smart People is most often reminiscent of Noah Baumbachs tales of cranky, neurotic academics (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) — people too smart for their own good. But Baumbach approaches his characters misery with insight and even affection.
Murro tends to deal in surfaces. Its hard to get a sense of the human beings beneath the cardboard facades. And Poirier favors clever, snappy lines that often garner laughs, but at the expense of character development.
Smart People looks at its unhappy eggheads like bugs in a jar. We never get close. We may not want to.