DVD Release Date:  August 12, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  April 11, 2008
Rating:  R (for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and for some sexuality)
Genre:  Comedy/Drama/Romance
Run Time:  95 min.
Director:  Noam Murro
Actors:  Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Hayden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes

Quirky, independent comedies appear to be all the rage these days. Eccentric ensemble casts with witty things to say learn lessons of hope and forgiveness… some dysfunctional family (or family-like unit) learns to turn their negatives into positives … you laugh, you cry, and you tell your friends.

With the success of the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s Juno, expect to see more movies like Smart People, the latest darling of the Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, Smart People doesn’t hold a candle to either of these recent screen gems. Undoubtedly movie reviewers across the country are crafting witty prose themselves to play off the film title’s adjective ‘Smart,’ because sadly, Smart People isn’t. 

But that doesn’t keep the film from wasting some A-list talent in an attempt to prove otherwise. Dennis Quaid is misanthropic widower Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Cranky and confused, Lawrence nonetheless feels infinitely superior to everyone around him. He doesn’t take the time to even remember his students’ names, so naturally they all hate him. His career is stalled as he is overlooked for promotion in his department and can’t seem to get his book published. No one appreciates just how smart he is (in his own mind). His son James (Ashton Holmes) can hardly stand to be in the same room with him and daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is so busy trying to be an academic genius, that she hardly has time for him—even when an accident puts him in the hospital.

Only Lawrence’s annoying pothead brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) gives him the time of day anymore, and that’s only to borrow money. Unfortunately (or maybe not, quirky independent comedies are funny that way), Lawrence is forced to allow Chuck to move into his house and become his daily driver, when Lawrence has a mild seizure and can no longer drive. It is the love/hate relationship between Chuck and Lawrence that becomes the most interesting part of the film, as Quaid and Church have a great deal of chemistry on-screen.

The same cannot be said for Lawrence’s relationship with love interest Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), the doctor who treats him in the hospital then turns out to be a former student from years past. Grumpy Lawrence is so completely pompous and unlikeable, that when their first date ends badly it’s simply unbelievable that she would want to be with him. Yet she continues to cut him more slack than he deserves, adding to the film’s overall depressing tone.

As daughter Vanessa, relative newcomer and Juno standout Ellen Page does her snarky best to portray the acerbic and conflicted teen overachiever. It’s a pity she does not, in this case, have better dialogue to work with. The morose screenplay of Smart People has none of Juno’s panache.

Smart People tries so hard to be clever, but in the end only taunts us with potentially complex characters who are gloomy and tedious. Aside from Lawrence developing some small affinity for his brother, whom he describes at one point as a “giant toddler,” no one here seems to learn much. Thus, there is no sense at the end that this nihilistic little movie is worth a viewer’s thoughtful consideration or time.