Any college student who sees “Smart People” is asked to identify and sympathize with an arrogant, self-absorbed and narcissistic English professor – not an easy task by any means. Why should we care that someone who displays such contempt for his students (not bothering to learn any of their names, moving his clock forward so he won’t have to hold office hours) needs help getting his personal life in order? The film never answers this for us, resulting in an underwhelming portrait of a curmudgeonly middle-aged man and the people who try, with great difficulty, to make his life slightly less miserable.
Dennis Quaid (“Vantage Point”) plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a professor of Victorian literature at Carnegie-Mellon University. He is a widower emotionally paralyzed with grief, and still keeps all of his dead wife’s clothes in a closet in his house. Lawrence suffers a trauma-induced seizure after a somewhat contrived incident involving his car and suddenly realizes he has to rely on his family more than he cares to. Complicating matters, his deadbeat adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church, “Sideways”) has appeared from out of nowhere to take up space in his house and create a negative influence on his workaholic, high-school-aged daughter (Ellen Page, “Juno”).
The supposed catalyst in Lawrence’s life is Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker, “Sex and the City”), the doctor that treats him for his seizure. It turns out Janet is also a former student of his who has harbored a long-standing crush, despite his harsh grading policy. The two begin to date, but Lawrence can’t ever seem to talk or think about anything other than himself. So flawed is this relationship that they have to break up a total of three times over the course of the movie. Why Janet keeps taking him back is a mystery. Clearly, he needs her to stabilize his life (though he won’t admit it), but it’s not clear why she needs him until another forced twist near the end.
The tone of “Smart People” is aggressively low-key, from the barely-there whiff of a plot to the quiet guitar strumming of the soundtrack. Everyone’s performance is scaled back about ten degrees, as though each scene were filmed after the cast members had taken a long nap. It’s a shame, too, because these are all such talented actors, but most of them are given underwritten roles. As Lawrence’s brother, Church is required to either disappoint with incompetence or give sage advice on life. Page, in her first post-“Juno” role, still exudes tremendous charm, even though she’s playing a composite of stereotypes (the “super-hardcore college prep student that learns to loosen up” mixed with “overprotective child that refuses to let anyone new into her family”). The hero worship she imposes upon her flawed father borrows many elements from Noah Baumbauch’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), a much better film about a self-absorbed English scholar and his family. “Smart People” is dull and somewhat depressing, and the plight of the hapless professor definitely won’t earn any points for coming out right before finals week.