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"Smart People" is the story of how an asshole is converted into a warm and mature person in just one hour and thirty-four minutes. The asshole is a professor of English at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and his name is Lawrence Wetherhold. He's played by Dennis Quaid as a man who makes you want to walk out of his classroom and switch your major to, say, Biology, which in fact is what a former student, played by Sarah Jessica Parker did, and became a doctor instead. He's the kind of person who deliiberately parks so as to take up two spaces instead of one, so naturally they will meet again when he, in his demented way, suffers a concussion while trying to scale a fence at the college's auto-impound lot after his car has been towed away, and is taken to the hospital.
Lawrence has two children, whom he takes so much for granted that he knows nothing of their lives; Vanessa, played by Ellen Page as a one-year-older version of her role in "Juno," and James, an aspiring poet, played by Ashton Holmes. Because Lawrence is a widower, Vanessa has become a substitute for her mother, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry in addition to studying for a perfect score on her SATs so she can get into Stanford. James has just had a poem accepted by The New Yorker, but nothing of the lives of his children makes any impression on Lawrence.
And then there's Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck, played by Thomas Haden Church in the liveliest performance of the film. He's a ne'er do well compared to Lawrence, but he will be the agent of change in the house, and none too soon either.
So after a start that has you hiding your eyes in embarrassment, the film opens up a bit and gives everyone some more room to explore and grow. Lawrence would like to become chairman of the English department but his latest book has been rejected by every publisher he sent it to; no hope there. Because the concussion precludes Lawrence from driving for six months, someone must be his chauffeur; that job goes to Chuck, who is inclined for forget Lawrence's schedule. And so on. The film shifts more into comic mode, and is the better for it. "Smart People" is director Noam Murro's first feature, and it is a workmanlike job; but someone should have told Dennis Quaid not to rely on his bugeyed double-takes so much. It becomes really annoying.
4/11/08 <! new pasted review ends on line above>