Smart People *** (out of ****)

Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page
Rating: R (language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, some sexuality)
Running Time: 95 min
Release Date: 4/11/08

Smart People has the feel of an indie film. It's opening scenes focus on Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who is as absent minded in day-to-day affairs as he brilliant in his field. For example he can’t remember the names of his students even if they have taken a class from him in the previous semester. He has been trying to market a manuscript that is a tome so turgid that no publisher wants it. But, it's his habit of parking his old Volvo diagonally across two parking spaces which leads to an incident that in turn will cause him to a meet the romantic interest in this film.

The car is towed. The attendant on duty is a former student, who won’t let him have the car without a receipt documenting the payment of his fine. Lawrence climbs over the fence in an attempt to retrieve his briefcase and on the way back falls resulting in a trip to the emergency room. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), his emergency room doctor, informs him that he has had a concussion that induced a seizure. Janet calls his home to notify his family and ultimately get through to his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page). She is very busy studying for her SATs that are scheduled for the next day and is very annoyed to have to go to the emergency room to pick him up. Vanessa is even more annoyed when she learns that her father is going to lose his driving privileges for the next six months due to the seizure and that she may have to be his chauffer.

This is where Lawrence’s deadbeat brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), enters the plot. He needs money and a place to stay. Chuck has been pleading for a loan and been repeatedly rebuffed. Now Lawrence needs a driver and as Chuck explains, “it’s a win-win situation.” When Lawrence can’t think of a good objection, Chuck moves in and takes the driving job.

We learn that Janet had a crush on Lawrence many years earlier which she was a student in his class. Since he is a widower and she is single the idea slowly occurs to him to ask her out. This he manages to accomplish in his very awkward manner. The relationship even goes forward even after their first date ends in disaster. He gives her a 45 minute lecture on literature and cuts her completely out of the discussion.

Vanessa is openly opposed to the budding relationship between Janet and her father, but this is only the beginning of her willful streak. She is active in Republican politics which one surmises clashes with her father views although this point is never developed. It seems that children of professors can go to school for free at Carnegie Mellon. Her brother has taken this path and she is expected to as well. However, she is harboring other plans, very expensive plans to attend Stanford. So she starts taking a very active role in enhancing her father’s career. When she finds that he is on a committee to choose a new department chairman, she suggests he should follow Dick Cheney’s example and lead the committee to select himself. Vanessa also picks a provocative title that succeeds in selling her father’s unpublished manuscript.

Meanwhile Chuck has proven to be a less than reliable driver failing to pickup Lawrence as planned. In another incident he gets Vanessa stoned on pot. After taking her out drinking one night (yes, she is about three years underage) Vanessa make a pass at him. Chuck is shocked but Vanessa points out that she was adopted. To her it seems that there is a distinction between biological and legal incest. From this point forward, Chuck tries his best to stay away from her.

A sequence of developments undermines Vanessa’s plans just as they seem to be about to fall into place. Lawrence’s almost total insensitivity to those around him leads to a temporary breakup with Janet. His son gets a poem published in the New Yorker and is blindsided with this news at a committee meeting. A testimonial letter asserting Lawrence’s qualities as teacher turns out to have been forged by Vanessa.

Smart People is for those viewers who like films about unusual families, snarky banter, and slow paced character development. Whatever one’s attitude toward this movie, it is clear is that Ellen Page is certainly one actress who is on a winning streak with this follow up to her role in Juno

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