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Smart People dumber than you might think

by Glen Baity

Smart People is a film that depends, more than most, on your affection for its characters. Unless you just don’t have enough self-absorbed jerks in your life, however, it’s unlikely you’ll want to adopt these.

The first feature by writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro is an immensely unpleasant one. Smart People is the story of a recently-tenured Carnegie Mellon English professor (Dennis Quaid), his GPA-obsessed 17-year-old (Ellen Page), his deadbeat brother (Thomas Haden Church) and the commitment-phobic doctor he falls for (Sarah Jessica Parker). It’s meant to be a quirky family dramady with a simple love story on the outskirts, but what it actually turns out to be is a movie about a group of awful people learning to be a little bit less awful.

There isn’t really a central plot here, but if I were pressed, I’d say it’s Lawrence’s (Quaid) quest for a book deal in the “publish or perish” world of academia. In the midst of waves of rejection from every corner, his brother Chuck (who is adopted, as Lawrence points out four or five million times) moves in to mooch off the family. Chuck strikes up a too-cozy friendship with Vanessa (Page), who secretly longs for a career-launching education at Stanford. She has a cold, smarmy hostility toward pretty much everyone, slightly less so toward her father, so she’s surprised and displeased when attractive physician Janet (Parker) starts coming around.

Smart People grates for a number of reasons, but let’s start with lazy characterization. Lawrence is a depressed widower, which you know because he often gazes at a picture of his dead wife, has a scraggly beard and frequently double parks his tiny car because he just, y’know, can’t be bothered to straighten it up. He’s also profoundly in love with the sound of his own voice in a way that only stuffy professors in movies are. Vanessa, one of too many characters here with a generalized superiority complex, flaunts her perfect SAT score to mask her feelings of social inadequacy. Her brother James (Ashton Holmes) is a young poet who is unaccountably angry at everyone and everything. He only pops up in the movie a handful of times, plays no significant role at all, and disappears eventually, never to be spoken of again. It’s a strange character.

One of my pet peeves in cinema is unexplained anger between characters, and these Smart People can’t stop sniping at one another, though the motivations will mystify you. Seriously, what made these people this way? The film seems to imply that the family fractured after the death of Lawrence’s wife, but I didn’t buy it for a second. Grief is the root cause of a lot of problems, but one doesn’t become as self-aggrandizing, myopic and petty as these people simply by losing a loved one. There are larger issues at work here, but Poirier’s script doesn’t seem interested in them. Instead, the audience gets a passive-aggressive battle royale, in which characters fling sarcasm by the bucketful and can only be mortally wounded by other people’s accomplishments.

The film is set during the Pittsburgh winter, and it’s appropriately cold and gray throughout, which highlights just how miserable this lot is to be around. Even the film’s title drips with too-obvious irony, a joke on career academics who are stupid as the rest of us in life and love. Its central point seems to be that people who think they’re so smart aren’t really so smart after all, not when it comes to the Really Important Things. It’s an observation that could only give comfort to someone with alarmingly deep insecurities about their own intelligence.

If Murro has accomplished anything here, it’s making a good cast so thoroughly contemptible. These are likeable actors stuck playing unlikable people, people that are smug and irritating, even when they’ve supposedly learned they’re smug and irritating and resolve to correct themselves. You’d have to search long and hard to find a film this ungenerous toward both its characters and its audience.

To comment on this article, e-mail glen.baity@gmail.com.

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