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Smart People (9/10)

by Tony Medley

This is a film about people who are smarter than everyone else, know it, and the ineffective ways in which they deal with the other people in the world who aren’t as smart. Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), are very smart, indeed, and they appear extraordinarily haughty. But as the film shows if you pay attention, it’s not necessarily haughtiness. For people who are super smart, their intelligence is their norm. They don’t necessarily view themselves as being terrifically smart (I say necessarily because there are some really arrogant smart people out there). Rather, they get impatient with others for not getting what they get so easily.

I equate this with being tall, a condition in which I have found myself most of my life. Just as people who are smart don’t necessarily feel that way, I never have felt tall. I never think about height because my height is my norm. But people who are shorter than I apparently think of me as tall. Are you getting this? So when people in this film think of Lawrence and Vanessa as demeaning towards less intelligent people, they are missing the mark and that’s what this film beautifully presents. They are smart. That’s their norm. What appears to be haughtiness is, in reality, frustration in dealing with people who don’t view things from the same starting point. The film shows two people who are far above their contemporaries in intelligence and suffering for it because they just can’t cope with dealing with people who don’t get it as quickly or succinctly as they get it.

Director Noam Murro, in his directorial debut, has a brilliant script, sometimes very funny, sometimes poignant, by novelist and first time screenwriter Mark Poirier. He also has an A-list cast of Page, Quaid, Thomas Haden Church, and Sarah Jessica Parker (OK, maybe she’s just marginally A-list). The result he has produced is greater than the sum of its parts.

Professor Wetherhold is an intellectual giant, an unhappy, nasty, acerbic English professor. Vanessa is a chip off the old block, brilliant, acerbic, and friendless. Lawrence’s brother by adoption, the ne’er-do-well Chuck (Church), shows up and moves in, against Lawrence’s wishes. Chuck represents every man, the person of normal intelligence who deals with people much better than his brother and niece.

In a fit of pique, Lawrence injures himself and meets emergency physician Janet Hartigan (Parker), a former student who apparently had a schoolgirl crush on him and tries to make something out of this renewed meeting. As might be expected, she finds that task of dealing with this guy on his terms daunting. To round out the ill-fitting family, Lawrence’s son, James (Ashton Holmes), can’t communicate with Lawrence any better than can Vanessa.

Page, with one of the most beautiful faces in Hollywood, Quaid, Church, and Parker all give performances that live up to the material, and that’s high praise.

This sort of reminded me of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966), although it’s not nearly as biting and vitriolic. As a result, it’s a lot closer to reality.