In an apparent continuation of my recent movie-going kick, I went to see Smart People Thursday evening. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have rightly praised Dennis Quaid’s performance as a stereotypical “bitter prof” who, for added measure, also bags a former student, just in case we hadn’t wandered too far into stereotype territory yet. Without giving too much away, Quaid’s character (naturally a member of the species “tenured deadwood” who’s too lazy to even remember the name of a student he’s had in multiple courses the prior semester) ultimately gets involved up to his eyeballs in academic politics at its most petty seeking a goal he really has no desire to achieve except to spite his colleagues, who he hates to the last man and woman, and who wholeheartedly reciprocate the feeling. Clearly screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier has spent far too much time around academics.
I thought most of the remaining cast did admirable jobs as well. I’ve seen some criticism of Ellen Page’s character, Quaid’s cynical daughter Vanessa, being essentially another riff on Juno McGuff, which seems a bit unfair to me; other than being high school kids who aren’t as smart as they think they are (that last part may be redundant), there isn’t a lot of commonality; Vanessa strikes me as Tracy Flick meets Mary Richards, complete with the bad dinner parties, with a dash of Alex Keaton for good measure (left unexplained is how Vanessa picked up the apparently-recessive Republican gene in her family), while Juno’s at least a partially-functional wannabe hipster. I also enjoyed Thomas Hayden Church’s turn as Quaid’s loser brother Chuck and the small role played by David Denman, formerly Roy on The Office.
The only character I really didn’t get was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, who to my mind hasn’t done anything worthwhile on the screen since 1995 or so (I count her role in L.A. Story as the ditzy So-Cal skater girl SanDeE* as the apparent pinnacle of her acting career, although she was also pretty good in Extreme Measures); it’s certainly not all that clear why Quaid would be be drawn to Parker’s character except out of sheer laziness in finding someone else to date, although her character’s motivations are somewhat clearer. The vague feeling she’s going to go blab it all in the next scene in graphic detail to Samantha, Miranda, and whatever-the-hell-Kristin-Davis’-character-is-called doesn’t exactly help either. But my Parker issues didn’t detract overly much from the film, which really doesn’t dwell on her character much anyway, as this movie operates on the rule that the female romantic lead has no scenes that don’t in some way relate to her romance with the male lead, a rule which I think I read in the blogosphere years ago but can no longer find. So, overall, I recommend the film.