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“Smart People” Brings Pseudo-Intellectualism to the Big Screen

No publisher will touch a manuscript with the word “intellectual” in the title, or so goes one chestnut about how stupid our culture has become. When British studio heads were looking to adapt Alan Bennett’s play "The Madness of George III" for celluloid, they felt it necessary to change the title to The Madness of King George lest too many Americans wonder what had happened to Parts I and II. Still, give us a chance and we may just lift our knuckles off the floor long enough to sit through cerebral entertainment. Sideways proved that an intelligent script featuring a sadsack oenophile snob – and Thomas Hayden Church! – could galvanize a national market for Pinot Noir. Smart People isn’t nearly as good, but it’s heartening to know that even a lackluster script featuring a sadsack literary snob – and Thomas Hayden Church! – can strike a foothold in Hollywood.

Dennis Quaid plays widower Lawrence Wetherhold, a name with Middlemarch-ian cadences wholly appropriate to his profession: He teaches Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon. Actually, he doesn’t so much teach as hector Victor literature. An edifice to self-absorption in tweeds, Wetherhold could not care less about his students, their names, or their CliffsNotes-prompted opinions about great books. He is shopping around a manuscript with something much worse than “intellectual” in the title, about the untold history of literary theory, and that no one apart himself takes seriously.

Wetherhold suffers a minor seizure after attempting to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car, which in his blithe indifference he parked across two faculty parking spaces. Since he can’t legally drive for six months, he needs a chauffeur. His doting, overachieving Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) has got SATs and anti-stem cell research leaflets to attend to, so she fobs the task off onto to his wastrel adopted brother Chuck (Hayden Church), who needs a place to stay.

There’s also a surreptitious poet in the family in the form of Wetherhold’s son, enrolled at Carnegie Mellon, but he’s indisposed with daddy issues and hormones (he’s the kind of character Michael Chabon would have made gay). In the course of his physical recovery, Wetherhold undergoes an implausibly emotional one facilitated by the lady doctor who treated him (Sarah Jessica Parker). She took his insufferable course a decade ago and developed a schoolgirl crush that has now metamorphosed into Florence Nightingale syndrome for tenured assholes. If only he remembered her, and hadn’t given her a C…

High-minded misanthropy was better attained by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, a film that at least had the courtesy not to indulge in a treacly redemption fantasy. It’s hard to fathom that any woman in her right mind, much less an ER physician with little free time on her hands, would give Wetherhold a second chance after their disastrous first date. Or that a literature prof would not have long ago been shaken violently out of his solipsistic torpor by a right-wing daughter who feeds him career advice from Dick Cheney’s playbook. Hayden Church has a few scene-stealing moments as the least maladjusted, and least accomplished, member of this patchwork bourgeois family, though a disturbing subplot centered around sexual tension with his niece distracts from his winning efforts to inject a little fun in everyone’s drab Pittsburgh lives. Otherwise, the dialog in Smart People is only ever medium-clever.

Though I think debut director Noam Murray shows great potential as a satirist as sharp and merciless as his protagonist. He hits a perfect note in a throwaway scene set at the Penguin Group offices in Manhattan, where Wetherhold’s book has finally, against all expectation, found an unlikely champion. The editor has made some creative changes to market this pompous tome: he’s going to call it You Can’t Read and make everyone hate its author. “The thing is like a fucking bully…NPR will go after you, and pretty soon you’ll find yourself defending it on Charlie Rose.” An entire, funnier, film might have been made out of this untilled soil of tabloid book publishing.

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