Smart People (movie review)

You know how some movies have action that goes on and on and on and you can’t catch your breath and you realize your body is completely tensed up and you wish it would just give you a moment’s break? This isn’t one of those movies.

Smart People, by director Noam Murro, is a slice of life movie that, fortunately, I was in the mood to see. Centered on the widowed Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (brilliantly played by Dennis Quaid), his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page, of “Juno” fame) and his (adopted) brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the slow but steady pace of the movie beautifully reflects the real-time daily pain of Prof. Wetherhold’s loss of his wife.

Wetherhold is an English professor who has become a curmudgeon, cruel to his students, dismissive to his family, and angry at the world. He wears his pain like a porcupine suit. His daughter Vanessa and his (adopted) brother Chuck try to reach him through academia, logic, and practicality. But it isn’t until he meets and gets to know Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) that a mirror is held firmly to his face to see what he’s become, and he is eventually re-introduced to the world around him and the people who love him.

Dennis Quaid is completely enveloped in his character. His portrayal of Wetherhold is so complete that I never saw Quaid on the screen, the sign of a great actor. Every facial muscle, hand clench, and crooked step is Wetherhold, not Quaid. I love it when I stop watching the actor and care about the character. Quaid is fantastic.

Ellen Page turns in a performance totally worthy as a follow-up to her spectacular portrayal as a pregnant teen in “Juno”. She’s a college-bound, Republican straight arrow, inhabiting her character with every inflection and turn of the head.

Sarah Jessica Parker provides an adequate performance as an emergency room doc turned love interest, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it was SJP. I got tired of the constant close-ups as well, which distracted me even further.

I found myself simultaneously a little bored and drawn in to the daily drama of their lives. The story moved one step back for every five steps forward, just like real life. While I left the theater considering whether I liked it or not, I realized later that I had been in the mood for a quiet, gentle drama, and this movie provided that little fix.

Overall, the story is like a tiny itch you have to continually scratch: a little irritating but satisfying when you can reach it, even though you know it’s coming back.  It’s when you at last find the source of the itch that you get final relief.