All atmosphere and no plot makes Smart People a dull watch.
The feature film debut of writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro, Smart People is a dark comedy about widower, blow-hard, and aging literature professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and the family he has screwed up. His son (Ashton Holmes) won't talk to him, his daughter (Ellen Page) is the female embodiment of Alex P. Keaton, and his adopted drifter brother (Thomas Haden Church) has invited himself in for another round of freeloading. No longer passionate about what he does, Wetherhold shores himself up against a career- and mid-life crisis by getting involved with a former student-turned-doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker).
It's been a couple of weeks since I screened Smart People, and I can barely remember anything in particular about it -- other than that it disappointed me. But indeed that should tell you everything you need to know -- Smart People is just another movie that fades into the middling morass of movie-dom with nothing in particular to commend it.
Not, mind you, that Smart People is bad, per se. Frankly, the cast is all quite talented and does an able job. Quaid (Vantage Point, In Good Company) in particular is impressive, having adeptly made the jump to character actor after all the cheesecake leading man roles I remember him from in the '80s. He embraces the character of Wetherhold, a slightly paunchy, burned-out know-it-all who looks like a petulant little boy with his floppy hair and tweed jacket. And of course the part of the zinger-delivering slacker is right in Haden Church's (Sideways, Spider-Man 3) sweet spot. But the story mostly just flounders around with no forward motion, no -- forgive me for using studio executive terms -- stakes. Wetherhold is grumpy, his daughter is a petulant bitch, blah blah blah.
If Wikipedia is to be believed, Poirier is a talented fiction writer, and I think that explains some of the problems. Smart People comes off more like a novel -- heavily invested in the inner life of the main character, and not so much on plot. Unfortunately, while that might be the very thing that makes a novel interesting, it is also the very thing that makes a movie dull.
And that is why the thing that is most striking about Smart People is that it's getting a wide release. Smart People is clearly an indie, and not a particularly well-fleshed-out one at that, yet somehow Miramax is opting to open it in theaters nationwide as though it were some big-studio romantic comedy blockbuster. I think Nick Schager of Slant has the right take on that in his review, where he describes Smart People as "a borderline excruciating exercise in trying to replicate the eccentric charm of Little Miss Sunshine."
Unfortunately for Miramax, even if Smart People is about an intelligent if dysfunctional family trying to love each other, it's lacking the charming originality of Little Miss Sunshine and fans who are either lured in by the cast or hoping to replicate the Little Miss Sunshine experience are in for a let-down.