Lawrence Wetherhold, the thoroughly unendearing hero of Smart People (Miramax), is an anti-intellectual’s fantasy of what a college prof might be. Played with shaggy gusto by Dennis Quaid, Wetherhold is a widowed Victorian-literature scholar raising a teenage daughter and son on his own. He’s also an arrogant, condescending windbag who goes out of his way to ignore his students’ and children’s needs while peddling a dyspeptic manuscript that will eventually be published under the title You Can’t Read.
A good 20 minutes of screen time are devoted solely to convincing us of this character’s douchebagdom. He parks his car diagonally across two reserved spaces on campus, just because he can; then, when the car is impounded, he insists on scaling the impoundment-lot fence. The resulting injury sends him to the emergency room, where he insults the doctor on call, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student whom he has, of course, forgotten, having never paid attention to her in the first place. When the doctor warns him that he’s legally forbidden to drive for six months after his head injury, he summons his 17-year-old daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) and announces that he’ll be needing her services as a chauffeur. Vanessa quickly unloads the job onto her uncle Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a middle-aged drifter who’s eager to shuttle around his toxic brother (or “adopted brother,” as Lawrence never fails to point out) in exchange for a roof over his head.
First-time director Noam Murro deftly accomplishes stage one of his mission: By the end of the first reel, we cannot abide Lawrence Wetherhold and are in firm grasp of the precise reasons no one else can stand him, either. His second task—to undertake the character’s gradual redemption in a way that’s both believable and tolerably uncloying—is trickier. I never quite bought the transformation of Wetherhold into a man deserving of the grace this movie accords him.
But as tough as Lawrence is to like, Smart People is even harder to hate, mainly because of the sharply observed script by novelist Mark Jude Poirier. Just when you’re losing patience with the movie, it sneaks up on you with a poignant detail or a character-defining turn of phrase. On their first date, Janet tells the pontificating Lawrence that it’s been 45 minutes since she uttered a single word, and you instantly identify both with her annoyance and his humiliation. And when Chuck asks his brother to “float [him] some greenbacks,” we understand everything we need to know about this amiable schnorrer, who’s the official black sheep of the Wetherholds but just as obviously their best hope for survival.
As Chuck, Thomas Haden Church reprises his Sideways role as the easygoing, none-too-bright foil for the uptight, intellectual hero. For all I know, Church really is a good-hearted stoner bumbling through life; at any rate, he plays one so irresistibly I don’t care whether he ever expands his range. Ellen Page’s role isn’t exactly a stretch, either: Her Vanessa is a wisecracking, vintage-clad overachiever straight from the Juno playbook (though the script’s choice to make her a Young Republican with a photo of Reagan on her wall is a jarring distraction). But whether they’re challenging themselves as actors or not, Page and Church have crackling chemistry and some of the best banter in the movie. “You should always make your bed in the morning; it sets the tone for the day,” Vanessa scolds her underachieving uncle. “How do you know what kind of tone I want to set?” he lazily replies.
Too bad the movie’s central relationship, the prickly courtship between Wetherhold and his doctor girlfriend, never finds its momentum. Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker, both terrific, aren’t to blame. The problem is that their relationship proceeds according to the As Good as It Gets law, which dictates that angry, paunchy, deeply disturbed old men in the movies need only to dial down their unpleasantness by 5 percent to win the affection of smart, kind, beautiful young women. Like Helen Hunt’s character in that movie (recently named by Slate’s Troy Patterson as one of the three worst films of the ‘90s), Parker’s Janet is fully cognizant of what a noxious crank she’s dating and declares, on two separate occasions, that she’s done putting up with his crap. But thanks to a saccharine and overly rushed ending that I won’t reveal here, that crap suddenly turns into a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I guess I shouldn’t hold it against Janet that professor Wetherhold somehow wins her over despite his glaring deficits. Smart People more or less did the same to me.