Smart People, the directorial debut of Noam Murro, is not a particularly brilliant film, nor is it an awful movie. Essentially, a film like this perfectly defines a middle of the road movie, one with some exceptional performances, particularly on the part of Dennis Quaid, and some endearing moments. Yet, the sum of all this films parts do not equal a whole. It is perhaps a bit to distancing of a film to be accessible to all viewers, admittedly I found many of the high-brow jokes quite amusing, but at a point in the film the believability of every characters ability to throw down these one liners about existentialist woes and post-modern intellectual rhetoric became absurd. The problem is that the film wants to be relatable to every viewer, unlike Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming or Stillman's Metropolitan, which both posit themselves as films about pretentious people existing in a pretentious world. In opposition is Smart People, which so desperately seeks to be liked by the average viewer, even including non-intellectual characters into the narrative mix, however, feels that these moments are always forced and relationships do not necessarily prove organic, but instead quite forced and unbelievable. Perhaps if Smart People were two distinct movies it would prove less problematic and much less tenuous. I do credit Murro for not placating to demands of normal narrative structures, in accessible characters, but simply wish that his vision of disillusioned intellectuals fit into their spaces properly, instead of trying to force themselves into moments without logical connections. Furthermore, much is made of the quirks and absurdities of each member in the family, yet no explanation is given as to how these acts evolved or emerged, especially in regards to the families traumatic loss prior to the narratives emergence. Ultimately, Smart People is a film focused on one man's reconciling with his life up to a point, but the means by which he engages in his change, and the path we are asked to follow as viewers simply does not provide for any sort of lively provocation or reflective sentimentality.
Smart People centers on the failings of Dr. Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) a self-righteous professor of literature who has all but disconnected from society after the loss of his wife years earlier. He has very few friends and is despised by both his students and colleagues. After forgetting his briefcase in his car that was towed, Lawrence attempts to retrieve the item without paying a fine, unfortunately, he falls off the fence while doing so, causing him to have a seizure and end up in the hospital. There he is cared for by Dr. Janet Harigan (Sarah-Jessica Parker) who it is later revealed was one of his students over a decade earlier. Janet admits to having had a crush on Lawrence, despite her despising him for giving her a C on a paper. The seizure Lawrence experiences causes him to become reliant on others to drive him about and his wunderkind daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) refuses to do so as she is in her senior year of high school and preparing to move off to college, while his son James (Ashton Holmes) is distanced from his overbearing father and simply extracts himself from commitment. As such Lawrence is forced to rely on the help of his adoptive brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) who is unreliable and relative to his lifestyle quite unsophisticated. The narrative then splits into two stories the first being Lawrence navigating the paths of romance with Janet, an initially unsuccessful task considering that his own surly and pretentious ways make it near impossible to connect on a human level, while the other portion of the narrative centers on Chuck attempting to convince Vanessa that there is far more to life than being an exceptional student. Of course, despite some moments of climax, the film wraps up nicely with everyone bonding, although James becomes noticeably irrelevant by the films closing, serving more as a plot advancer than anything else.
A question then emerges on how to portray intellectuals on screen, a task that can be troublesome and often impossible. Take for example the world of Godard's films, something I have both praised and criticized, is Godard's characters. His more contemporary works create intellectuals who profess, but do not exude intelligence, which is what appears to be the case with Lawrence in Smart People. That is not to criticize Dennis Quaid's performance, which was quite exceptional and unexpected, where it placed within any other film it could likely have earned him an Oscar nomination. Regardless, Lawrence does not learn to adapt his intelligence to equate to being liked, but instead learns to create two spheres to engage with the world, one where he is privately less intellectual, and another the public where he remains the same. The closing scene of the film with him in the classroom should not be read as him learning to engage with the students simply by sitting on his desk and asking them where they are from, because he has not actually suggested that they are capable of engaging with him intellectually means that his evolution is not complete. Succumbing to the release of his hyper-pretentious You Can't Read book also affirms this notion. Furthermore, he learns to accept Chuck as a family member, but it appears as this is the limitation of his desire to bond with his non-biological brother. Finally, even when he becomes tied to Janet it is predicated on her pregnancy, suggesting that it is more out of social necessity and respectability than love and desire. I have not seen Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting but I hear they portray intellectuals in a different light, perhaps I will reconsider this idea in relation to one of those films later down the line. Until then, just know that Smart People is not a great depiction of the intellectual in cinema.
Key Scene: Perhaps the sweetest moment in the film occurs when Chuck and Lawrence are perusing Costco for baby items, but even then it is not a particularly brilliant moment.
I have no real reason to suggest watching this film, unless you like any of the actors involved. Instead go watch Kicking and Screaming or some other properly intellectual film.