When you come across a film with the title Smart People, you know the phrase must be double edged; it just has to be an ironic cue for a tale about folk with stratospherically high IQs but with emotional intelligence that would shame an amoeba.
That’s certainly the case with this movie from first-time director Noam Murro and first-time screenwriter Marc Poirier. Dennis Quaid plays the clever clod in question, a fearsomely bright professor of Victorian literature with all the sensitivity of a chalkboard. A grouchy, self-absorbed widower, Quaid’s Lawrence Wetherhold is so uninterested in his students that he can’t remember their names after teaching them for two courses.
And he’s in danger of passing on his dysfunctional ways to his over-achieving daughter Vanessa (Juno’s Ellen Page playing another smart-ass), as well as alienating his college-age son, James (Ashton Holmes).
Then he has a minor seizure during a typical act of arrogance-fuelled folly (climbing over a fence to retrieve a case from his impounded car) and the accident brings him into renewed contact with two people from his past – his scapegrace adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church from Sidweways) and Sarah Jessica Parker’s ER doctor, Janet, who used to be one of his students (of course, he can’t remember her).
While Chuck, who is supposed to be acting as Lawrence’s chauffeur, attempts to loosen up Vanessa (taking her to bars, getting her to smoke pot, and so, irresponsibly, on), Janet begins dating her old professor, holding out some hope that “pompous windbag” Lawrence may gain something approaching emotional maturity.
The developing relationship between Lawrence and Vanessa is, it must be said, more than a little implausible, but the acting is superb and the script witty, literate and, yes, smart.
It just so happens that today sees the reissue on DVD of another film with an over-achieving but emotionally stunted protagonist – The Graduate…