"Smart People" is the kind of small, cranky family and/or friendship comedy that has been busting out since "Sideways," often exceeding expectations, occasionally inspiring a backlash, and sometimes not. In this case, the lineage feels easy to trace because of the appearance of Thomas Haden Church as a charming reprobate, but there's plenty to link it to other recent comedies of measured breakdowns and bearable angst like "The Squid and the Whale," "The Savages" and "Little Miss Sunshine."
Selfish, self-absorbed, pompous, condescending and crabby professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a jerk for the ages. A tenured professor of Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon, he sleepwalks through his classes, can't be bothered to get to know his students (he never remembers a name) and takes his adoring, howlingly lonely teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) completely for granted. His excuse: His beloved wife died years ago, and he still can't bring himself to donate her clothes. (For another take on the lonely widowed college professor, see also Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor.")
His brother Chuck (Church), on the other hand, whom Lawrence always insists on pointing out is adopted, is a pot-smoking, unemployed good-for-nothing who notices people, listens to them and tries to meet their needs while, naturally, making sure that his are met first. Chuck shows up at his brother's house on the same day that Lawrence's arrogance and insensitivity lands him in the hospital having suffered a seizure after a fall. When the ER doctor orders Lawrence not to drive, Chuck sees an opening and offers himself up for duty. In no time, he's ensconced in the guest bedroom and in Lawrence and Vanessa's lives.
Like her father, Vanessa is brilliant but socially clueless. She's learned to emulate his condescension and contempt for people he doesn't perceive to be as smart as he is, and as a result, she eats alone at school every day. Her brother, James (Ashton Holmes), a student at Carnegie Mellon, tries to distance himself from his universally disliked sister and father. He's dating a girl on the committee to select the head of the English department, a position Lawrence wants but no one wants him to have.
The ER doctor turns out to be Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of Lawrence's whom of course he doesn't remember. She, on the other hand, remembers him quite well -- it was his humiliating grades and harsh comments on a paper that caused her to switch her major from English to biology. But the crush she harbored at the time is rekindled when he comes into the hospital, and when Lawrence asks her out, Janet accepts against her better judgment. Vanessa, meanwhile, does everything she can to scare Janet off.
"Smart People" was written by novelist Mark Poirier and directed by commercial director Noam Murro, and it's an auspicious feature debut for both. Poirier's feel for character, ear for dialogue and eye for detail are superb. When Janet shows up at the Wetherholds' for Christmas dinner, she comes bearing a cake stolen from the hospital's break room, basically a promotional item with the name of a pharmaceutical written on it in frosting. If ever there was a family in need of a big, green frosted antidepressant, it's this one.
Murro gets pitch-perfect performances from the actors. Parker is low-key and charming as the lonely doctor living a somewhat sterile life, and Holmes is effective in a quiet role as the overlooked sibling whose sudden stealth accomplishments surprise the family and cement his resentment.
Church more or less steals the show as the shambling slacker who finds himself having to deal with more than he bargained for, but it's Quaid and Page who stand out for their funny, sad portrayals of a supremely damaged individual and the daughter who wants to be just like him when she grows up. When Lawrence goes into his daughter's room to talk to her after she insults "the physician," Vanessa says, "People like you and me, we don't need to compensate." But it's evident to everyone that all she does is compensate, just like her dad. "I don't think you know how to be happy, Vanessa," he tells her later. "Well, you're not happy," she replies, "And you're my role model."
Quaid's sublimely grumpy and contemptuous Professor Wetherhold is just the latest of depressed academics and intellectuals to come along in small comedies (Steve Carell in "Little Miss Sunshine," Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Savages," and Michael Douglas in "The Wonder Boys" also come to mind) that help make light of the current climate of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in the U.S. They suffer, absurdly, so that we might laugh at them and feel a little better about the mess we're in.
Some -- the writer of the screenplay included -- might describe "Smart People" as a movie in which not much happens. I'd argue that just enough happens, it just happens on a level that's more micro than macro. It's the kind of observational comedy, that'll be hard to find come summertime and should be enjoyed while there's still a chance.
"Smart People." MPAA rated: Rated R for language, brief teen drug and alcohol use and some sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In wide release.