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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Smart People

All brains, no heart

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Smart People is about what can happen when the mind is divorced from the heart and spirit. It is also a droll peek into the dreary environs of academia, where the pursuit of knowledge has stumbled onto the treadmill of careerism. It stars Dennis Quaid as Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor trudging grimly across Carnegie Mellon, face twisted and frozen into an expression of contempt for his colleagues and students.

His colleagues, exactly the sort of twits infesting many universities, are probably even poorer souls than Lawrence. His students, however, may deserve better than what he offers them—some of them, anyway. When Lawrence wakes up in a hospital bed after an embarrassing fall, he doesn’t remember that the sexy attending physician, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), was once his student. She had a crush on him, even though the C he gave her term paper on Bleak House prompted a change in her major, from literature to biology.

Will old embers flicker back to life in Janet’s heart? Would Lawrence even notice? Smart People has a solid premise but lacks a deliberate pace. It ambles around the lives of its major characters, showing more about some than others. Plot developments fit like a baggy rumpled suit over the reasonably well-toned nub of the story.
Lawrence can’t get over the death of his wife at some indeterminate time in the past, yet we never get the idea that he was once capable of any relationship beyond the cerebral. Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a low-class loser who drifts between jobs like a tree branch buffeted by the fast stream of life, gives evidence that nature is more important than nurture in forming character. Un-ambitious, nonintellectual and easygoing to a fault, Chuck seems to belong in a different family altogether.

Lawrence’s alienated son is only a minor character, but his daughter, Vanessa, occupies more screen time than Janet, his awkward love interest. Ellen Page plays Vanessa in a preppy variation on her Oscar-nominated part in Juno. “Great—now I’m in an after-school special!” she snaps when Chuck lights up a joint at the dinner table. Focused entirely on grade points and acing her SAT, she comes only grudgingly to see dad in the hospital and announces that she is too busy to be of much help during his convalescence. “I think self-absorption is underrated,” she declares. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a portrait of that emblem of self-interest, Ronald Reagan, decorates her bedroom. What is odd is Vanessa’s out-of- left-field sexual-emotional interest in Chuck, which seems pasted onto the narrative in a desperate bid to find a subplot. Smart People gets a little fuzzy in focus as it tries to encompass several prominent characters and their emotional isolation. But it holds out the prospect that the ties of family and love can overcome—that the prospect of learning to care, or daring to do so, can bridge the chasms dividing individuals from each other. At the very least, Lawrence learns that good sex at night makes him a better teacher by day.

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