MOVIE REVIEW- Not so smart: Chasm between people is sar-chasm

a still from this week's filmSavvy moviegoers know great independent films are unlikely to be released at this time of year, too late for one award season and too early for the next. While we may see an occasional gem like In Bruges, most of the indies range from not-so-good (e.g., Sleepwalking) to not-so-bad (Snow Angels).Steve WarrenDennis Quaid acts like he wants to be the next Jack Nicholson– and he may be one day– but he's not there yet. We know his character, Lawrence Wetherhold, is an a**hole because the first shot shows him parking in the middle of two reserved spaces. In the next scene he makes his students wear nametags so he doesn't have to learn their names.

Lawrence blows off his adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a lovable slacker who only comes around every couple of years when he needs a handout disguised as a loan.

At home Lawrence pays little more attention to his children, bickering siblings Vanessa (Ellen Page) and Jim (Ashton Holmes), than he does his students. Jim, a budding poet, lives in a dorm at Carnegie-Mellon, where his father teaches. Vanessa, a Young Republican, has a sharp legal mind.

On the eve of Vanessa's SATs, Lawrence has an accident and winds up in the ER, where the doctor is a former student of his, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), whom he once advised to change her major from English to biology. (Good call, although she didn't appreciate it at the time.)

Because he had a mild, trauma-induced seizure, Lawrence isn't allowed to drive for six months. His insurance won't pay for a chauffeur, so Chuck is suddenly useful. He moves into the house and starts corrupting too-serious Vanessa into having fun. When he's too successful, things get complicated.

Learning from a colleague that Janet had a "schoolgirl crush" on him, Lawrence decides he may have mourned his wife long enough. (Chuck and Vanessa decide the same thing and donate her preserved wardrobe to Goodwill, but Lawrence buys it back.) He asks Janet out, but after 45 minutes of his self-centered pomposity, she concludes it was a bad idea.

He disagrees and starts pursuing her. Among the many incredible aspects of the story is that this intelligent woman is dumb enough to think he can change. What's more incredible, the filmmakers expect us to believe he can.

About every other line of Poirier's frequently witty dialogue is a punch line, the chasm between Lawrence and the people in his life being sar-chasm. The ratio is even higher for Vanessa, as the character feeds on Page's Juno popularity. The actress, a bit more glamorized but less successful at disguising her Canadian accent, is delightful again; but Vanessa is supposed to be a fundamentally unhappy person– hence her uncle's efforts– and Page never conveys that aspect for a second.

Lawrence has written a book that has been universally rejected, but as his luck begins to change Penguin decides to buy it. They subject it to a thorough editing, rendering it almost unrecognizable, to make it more commercial; and Lawrence is so relieved to get it published he doesn't object.

One suspects Smart People went through a similar process, judging from gaps in the narrative caused by a tendency to jump to the next joke as quickly as possible, as well as the criminal waste of Christine Lahti in a nothing role as Lawrence's secretary or assistant– their relationship is never established.

There are so many gay references by and about Chuck that he practically has to come out as heterosexual– and even then his story about a "girlfriend" isn't true. Later he tells his brother they're "the Wetherhold bachelors: middle-aged, can't get along with women; should be gay." If Lawrence ever went by a diminutive nickname, we could pronounce them Chuck and Larry.

Although I usually decry product placement, a reference to an anti-depressant is one of the funniest things in the movie, right up there with Janet reminding her former professor, "You said my paper was sophomoric. I was a freshman."

The smart people in Smart People are academics; only Chuck has a version of street smarts. There's some high-sounding literary twaddle, but the movie is really pitched at a middle-brow crowd, including an album's worth of soft-rock songs shoehorned painfully onto the soundtrack.

Considering the compromises made to enhance the film's boxoffice chances, it's amazing Miramax accepted an R rating (mostly for teen drug and alcohol use), cutting out a large segment of Page's Juno fan base when she's the best thing Smart People has going for it. That wasn't smart.