by Laura Tucker
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When I first sat down in the theatre to watch Smart People and took a look at a slovenly, unkempt, older-looking Dennis Quaid, I thought life without Meg Ryan isn’t really working out for him. Then, I thought the opposite looking at his love interest in the film, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, thinking life with Matthew Broderick is still working well for her. Quaid and Parker are only 11 years apart in age, but they look at least 20.
Then, I remembered that Quaid usually throws himself into a role completely, and watching him as the ne’er-do-well English literature professor, Lawrence Wetherhold, I realized this was to blame and not his ex. He drags himself into his classroom, refuses to connect with students who are begging for it, refuses to give the man he insists on calling his “adopted brother” a loan, and has his car impounded while he’s visiting his son’s dorm.
After he irritates an ex-student manning the lot when he doesn’t remember him, Wetherford receives a head injury trying to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car. This lands him in the hospital, being treated by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), yet another student he doesn’t remember. Because of his injury, he’s not allowed to drive for six months, and his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), is way too busy with her SATs and Young Republican functions to drive him. She hires out the adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), to chauffeur her dad and live in their home.
While Page carried much of her last film, Juno, the dramatic and comedic ensemble here is equal to her talent, especially that of Church. Although they begin the film as a very distant uncle and niece, they then end up creating a unique relationship, as he encourages her to step out of her Young Republicans (or, as he calls it, the Hitler Youth Rally). She tells him he should make his bed, as it sets the tone for the rest of day, making him question how she knows what tone he wants to set.
Parker spends a good deal of time in the film being angry, which does help some to make her seem older, yet it seems she’s supposed to be even younger than she is. Once she gets together with Quaid, it’s definitely an odd pairing, and there’s a certain awkwardness there, but there’s supposed to be. They’re definitely intellectual equals, which can be said of the whole cast. Everything, from their discussions to their humor, comes from an intellectual standpoint.
A subplot of the film involves Professor Wetherhold campaigning to become the new head of the English Department. With his pretentiousness and pompous speeches, he fits in well, yet in other ways he falls short socially. His wife died several years ago, and it seems everything in his life died with her. He just goes through the motions, including parenting. Page’s young character is forced into a mothering role, which is definitely stifling to her and makes her come off as very angry as well.
Because of the way Quaid throws himself so fully into his roles, I’ve always found a fascination with the characters he creates, and Professor Wetherhold is no different. To have the film based around “smart people,” who just can’t seem to get their act together, makes it one of those films that makes you think. Even Church’s character brings up that people who are smart like them don’t need to compensate with social skills. They feel like they have everything else going for them for success, although watching these “smart people” just walking through their lives, seeing all their failed relationships, they absolutely do.
Laura Tucker is a freelance writer providing reviews of movies and television, among other things, at Viewpoints and Reality Shack, and operates a celebrity gossip blog, Troubled Hollywood. She is also an Associate Instructor and 1st dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts.
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