Just to prove that I occasionally watch movies that aren’t documentaries, I’ll offer a brief review of Noam Murro’s Smart People (IMDB), the indie comedy-drama starring Dennis Quaid as the frumpy, self-absorbed English professor Lawrence Weatherhold and Sarah Jessica Parker as the soft-hearted medical doctor whose past schoolgirl crush on Weathehold is renewed when she treats him in the hospital. Ellen “Juno” Page joins the party as Vanessa, Weatherhold’s overachieving young Republican daughter (think Alex P. Keaton as a girl), and Thomas Haden Church pops in as Chuck, Lawrence’s adopted slacker brother (why, again, is Chuck the default name for slacker guys on TV and in the movies?).
As Village Voice critic Robert Wilonsky points out, Smart People is meant in part as academic satire, and because I’ve already acknowledged my inability to resist films about academics, I ended up seeing the film, against my better judgment. All of the classic stereotypes are there: the teacher who intentionally forgets his students’ names, who pushes the clock ahead to skip out of office hours, who has no awareness of fashion (or razors, for that matter). You get the idea. The film’s plot centers on Lawrence’s attempts to belatedly come to terms with his wife’s death after an accident almost too goofy to describe gives him a concussion, preventing him from driving for six months. Enter Chuck, the charming pot-head, beer-drinking slacker brother who makes money by stapling diet ads to telephone poles (not polls, as I originally wrote). Chuck becomes Lawrence’s unofficial chauffeur, and of course, in the process coaches Lawrence and Vanessa in getting in touch with their emotions and becoming (slightly) less self-absorbed. Throw in Lawrence’s initially tentative relationship with the good doctor, Janet, who also seems emotionally isolated, and you have pretty much every element of the quirky indie comedy drama about dysfunctional smart people. It’s About Schmidt meets The Squid and the Whale with a Sideways twist.*
Aside from hitting so many indie drama cliches, Smart People fell into other traps as well. We get absolutely no backstory for Janet, other than one brief conversation with a sympathetic colleague. She wrote a paper for Lawrence’s class; he gives her a C, and she is so traumatized that she chooses to major in biology instead. That’s about it. And [spoiler warning] Smart People is yet another indie film that resorts to pregnancy as a means of providing redemption for one or more of the film’s characters. Like the Seth Rogen character in Knocked Up, Lawrence essentially sheds his self-absorption only after a condom mishap leads to the inevitable responsibilities of parenthood. And Smart People spends even less time than Knocked Up and Juno in considering abortion as a viable option. But at least Chuck’s porn ‘stache was cool.
* In retrospect, I meant As Good As It Gets, not About Schmidt (I was intending to refer to the improbable relationship between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt), but I think the point is more or less the same.