Ordinary People

Intelligence goes soft in this more obvious than smart rom-com.

Apr 9, 2008 at 4:00 am

Smart people got no reason to live — and, sure, that's not quite how Randy Newman sang it, but the point still stands. Because in Noam Murro's directorial bow — one of those Sundance premieres starring famous people slumming it in dingy Indieland — the smart people ain't doing much l-i-v-i-n' at all. They're just drifting along, heads in hands and up their posteriors whilst moping and groping their way toward another wanh-wanh tomorrow, during which they'll wake up and commence bitching and moaning about how crappy yesterday was. Look...see...don't you get it? The title's ironic.

Like, take Lawrence Wetherhold, played by Dennis Quaid beneath a greasy moptop and a brushy beard. Lawrence is a misanthropic college prof who, when he's not willfully forgetting his students' names or altering clocks to duck office hours, is out peddling a pissed-off rant to publishers totally disinterested in his treatise on how he's right and every other literary critic in the history of words is wrong, wrong, wrong. He's also a crap single dad who has no idea what his children are capable of: His college-age son James (Ashton Holmes) is an aspiring poet worthy of the New Yorker, while his high-school-senior daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) is too chickenshit to tell her father she got into Stanford.

The geniuses in the Wetherhold household can't and won't connect. They're kept apart by the ghost of the late Mrs. Wetherhold, whose clothes still hang in a closet like she's just off to the grocery store for a bit, and by their big brains, which have apparently devoured their hearts. Cue Chuck, Lawrence's adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church (and rockin' the best porn mustache this side of 1974). Against Lawrence's wishes, the fuck-up Chuck moves into the room with all the dead wife's clothes and starts loosening up the Wetherhold household — first, of course, with a little THC, followed by more appropriate doses of TLC.

Then there's the other smart person added to the mix: Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), Lawrence's former student, who still has a thing for the prof — understandable, as somewhere beneath the scruff and behind the gut is Dennis Quaid; inexplicable, as he's a sumbitch sans class or manners. Their off-campus meet-cute takes place in a hospital, after Lawrence dings his head on the concrete while trying to steal his towed-away car from the university impound. That's what they call "falling hard."

The film progresses apace: Bastard meets beauty while heart meets brain, and the hard widower's slowly softened into something more easily recognized as "human." Which is all well and good and nice and sweet, except Lawrence is more interesting as a prick — funnier, in fact, and more human than the guy who emerges from the hardened shell. But more to the point, the movie never really gives a reason — a motivation — for his evolution toward softydom. It just sort of, kind of, barely happens, not because it has to — not because the film's shown anything approaching evolution or a love so great as to be life-altering — but because it's supposed to, this being a movie about dumb-ass brainiacs obsessed with their own navels forced to consider someone else's bellybutton.

It's almost impossible to bear the film ill will, as it makes a case for compassion and tries awfully hard to be awfully sweet. But then what? Written by first-timer Mark Poirier, it's all action without any meaning, a beginner's-class screenplay populated by archetypes — the wise-beyond-her-years teen, the hardboiled widower, the reckless and feckless sibling, the nice lady who rescues the dick from himself — who just do things till they run out of unhappiness, the end.

Quaid tries awfully hard, as he lumbers through university corridors and threadbare hallways with the gait of a battered, broken man. Everyone else feels like they're stepping into mushy, familiar footprints: How many times will Thomas Haden Church play the wisecracking ne'er-do-well, or Ellen Page be cast as the teen who sounds like a snarky 42-year-old? And Parker has two speeds nowadays, the humorless intruder who steps into a bastion of dysfunction only to emerge as loving and whole (see also: The Family Stone) and, well, Carrie Bradshaw.

A colleague offers the perfect description of a film like Smart People, in which the plot lurches toward an inevitable, obvious, and not particularly well-thought-out finale: It's like the entire season of a sitcom whittled down to a single episode. There's no time for characterization, no room for emotion, no interest in anything other than moving the story forward. It's all action, no reaction. One minute they're miserable; 90 minutes later, aww, better.