While “Smart People” boasts Sundance credentials and a hip cast of actors, its treacly life lessons, tame “edginess” and smothering tenderheartedness makes it feel like a big-screen version of “Family Ties.” All that’s missing are Tina Yothers and some Maxwell House commercials.
Dennis Quaid stars as grumpy English professor Lawrence Wetherhold, who has been generally disagreeable to just about everyone since the death of his wife several years earlier. But when he falls off a fence (he’s climbing into the campus tow lot to sneak his car out), he winds up in an emergency room, where he’s tended by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who once nursed a crush on him.
Since the fall also involved a slight seizure, Lawrence isn’t allowed to drive for six months, so his ne’er-do-well adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in to chauffeur him around. Sharing the house with these sparring sibs is Lawrence’s teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), who bonds with her father over their intellectual superiority. She’s got the kind of brain that makes her shoot for a perfect SAT score but the sort of personality that keeps her from having friends.
It’s not really giving anything away to reveal that Lawrence’s relationship with Janet teaches him how to be human again, and to keep Vanessa from following too closely in his all-brain, no-soul footsteps, and to reconnect with his son (Ashton Holmes), a college student with a gift for poetry that has gone unnoticed by dad.
Screenwriter Mark Poirier could be forgiven for his hackneyed plotting if the dialogue crackled, but apart from occasionally dropping words like “ontology” and “epistemological,” the talk here is none too smart. And since, like 99 percent of all other Sundance-type indies, “Smart People” is shot in the dreariest grays possible — surely Pittsburgh in December has some visual appeal to be beheld — the movie’s not much to look at, either.
Dennis Quaid’s an underrated actor, but surely he didn’t feel the need to take this role just so he could be schlubby and unathletic. Is this the guy equivalent of Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman putting themselves through the ugly machine to win an Oscar?
In any event, the character of Lawrence Wetherhold doesn’t give Quaid much to play with, and the result is one of the actor’s less compelling screen appearances. Parker feels completely miscast (she and Quaid have all the chemistry of Perez Hilton and a competent hairstylist), and Page gives yet another version of the wise-beyond-her-years teen she’s already assayed in “Hard Candy” and Juno.” Page is a talented actress, but she needs to find a new gimmick, and quick; no one wants to see a precocious 30-year-old.
Church, at least, effortlessly gets laughs, but he too is playing a variant on his “Sideways” character, making you wish that a quartet of fine actors like this had been allowed to tear into something, well, smarter.