In one of Smart People's many funny (yet real) scenes, several beers have loosened the inhibitions and tongue of bright, highly motivated teen Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page). As she staggers out of the bathroom, she pauses to ask a bottle-blonde, denim-clad woman "How's it feel to be stupid?" The woman snaps back: "How's it feel to eat lunch alone every day?" Vanessa's drunk enough to be honest: "It f***in' sucks." And that scene, in a nutshell, is what Smart People is about -- how it's one thing to be bright and aware and clever and perceptive, but it also sucks to eat lunch alone. Vanessa's dad Lawrence (Dennis Quaid) is a burly, bearded professor in the English department at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University - sluggish and surly and sleepwalking through his days. It's established -- carefully and well -- that Lawrence lost his wife not that long ago. His son James (Ashton Holmes) is attending Carnegie; his daughter Vanessa busies herself as Lawrence's right hand woman -- preparing meals, thinking of new titles for his book, advising him on office politics. This has two advantages for Vanessa; she gets to help her dad with his problems, and it keeps her too busy to think about her own.
The Wetherholds don't have much of a life, but at least it has some order to it -- order that's disrupted by the arrival of Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Lawrence's adopted brother. Chuck is a slow-motion wreck of a man, a financial and professional failure, but he knows things his brainy brother and niece don't. Chuck wants to crash with Lawrence for a while, but Lawrence isn't very interested in that; when Lawrence has a seizure that means his driving license is revoked for six months, Chuck leaps in that window of opportunity headfirst. Chuck, by his very presence, destroys the status quo at the Wetherhold home. What we come to grasp is that maybe that status quo needs destruction.
Directed by Noam Murro from Mark Poirier's script, Smart People is a superbly-made piece of entertainment for grown-ups, one that works as a comedy and as a drama, with a cast of actors that not only each do great work but who also do great work together. As Chuck starts bringing Vanessa out into the world (he's the one who sneaks her into the bar for the above mentioned beers), Lawrence thinks about an ER doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) he's met, one of his old students, and decides that he'd like to have a date. Wanting to have a date and actually having a date, though, are two very different things.
Smart People takes two frequent cinematic stand-bys, the dead spouse movie and the fractured family film, and manages to execute both of them with no small amount of skill. Unlike P.S. I Love You or Dan in Real Life, the loss of Lawrence's wife is neither operatically omnipresent or glossed over; it's just always there, always sad, always real. And unlike Little Miss Sunshine or many other 'dysfunctional family' films, Smart People isn't slathered with wacky, zany characters. Everyone onscreen is human, and the film's full of small, deft character touches that feel unforced. Murro may be a commercial director, but the interesting thing is that Smart People's never rushed or overdone; there's a lot of very funny silences here, and graceful moments that work. Poirier's script may have well-observed touches -- he knows the academic environment of Lawrence's work -- but the writing's more about universal humanity than one specific world.
And Murro and Poirier are fortunate to have their cast, and vice-versa; all the actors work towards the great material with zest and verve and skill. Parker gets to take a break from playing Manhattan Barbie and actually perform a part; her give-and-take with her fellow cast members, including a very funny, very uncomfortable holiday dinner, reminds us she's a real actor. Thomas Haden Church may seem to be reprising his lovable screw-up role from Sideways, but there's more to Chuck than meets the eye. Quaid may have put on a method gut for the film, and his physical touches in the role are impressive, but he also captures Lawrence's spirit as a man whose sadness has turned to indifference. Holmes doesn't have much screen time, but his few scenes make you wish he had more. And Page, as Vanessa, delivers a true performance -- Vanessa's a smart, clever, self-assured teen, but she's also real, not just a hollow Pez dispenser spitting out candy-colored snappy bits of dialogue and phony-baloney speeches. (Smart People was filmed before Juno, and if that film's over-praised status is used to entice audiences to see Smart People, then at least those theatergoers will have had the chance to see Page actually play a character, not a caricature.)
Smart People doesn't tie things up with a neat bow; the characters change, but not that much; some things are fixed, and some things are even more complicated. Smart People is an excellent movie about how knowing things is ultimately less important than knowing yourself, how success isn't what makes you successful, how the background hum of grief can in its way become a comfort and how hope can be the most terrifying thing imaginable. I liked Smart People, but I also kept thinking about the thoughts, the ideas, the cautions and the celebrations in it. I also appreciated how skillfully it avoided the easy answers and simple plotlines in its ideas and instead created real scenes and took real chances and worked as a real success. Smart People may be the epitome of what the trades call a "small movie," but it's so well-made, so well-acted and so impressively (for lack of a better word) smart that anyone who seeks it out will find something to admire and enjoy in its craft and heart.
(For more on Smart People, check out our interview with Quaid, Parker and Church.)