PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

Smart People

Smart People is determined to showcase familial quirk in multiple dimensions.


Smart People

Director: Noam Murro
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax Films
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-05-09 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-04-11 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Carnegie Mellon English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is smart. He's also essentially miserable, and spends a lot of energy resenting his politically minded colleagues, his wife's death, and his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He's especially keen to ensure his students understand their unworthiness, and so he makes them wear nametags so he can remind them how little he cares about them. Shopping a manuscript on the devolution of intelligence, he takes the title suggested by his brilliant, malcontent, very orderly Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), "You Can't Read." Each week, another rejection.

Lawrence's routine appears well established in Smart People. And then, because he's in a movie where he must be redeemed, he runs into a problem -- born, of course, of his hubris. Following an unannounced visit to his son's Carnegie Mellon dorm room, when he has discovered that James (Ashton Holmes) writes poetry and has never told him ("There's a lot you don't know," grumps the son), Lawrence argues with an offended former student/security guard over his car's towing, jumps an impoundment lot fence, and winds up in the hospital, concussed.

Informed by his doctor, a former student he can't remember named Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), that, legally, he cannot drive for six months, Lawrence is forced to accept Chuck's services as driver. This arrangement means they will be spending time together and, most egregiously, that Lawrence will be dependent on his utterly undependable sibling. Here the film plants not one but two seeds of redemption: Lawrence acts on Janet's wholly unexplained romantic interest (he hears she had a crush on him when she was in his class, as if this is not a folly she would not have long ago recognized as such) and Chuck makes it his mission to save Vanessa from herself (evidence that she needs saving: when she learns Lawrence has been asked to head the department committee searching for a new chair, she uses Dick Cheney as the example for appropriate behavior: Lawrence should nominate himself).

Smart People is determined to showcase familial quirk in multiple dimensions. The strain of such determination is evident, as hackneyed plot turns push each player to his or her next move, and then again: teetotaler Vanessa must not only smoke pot and watch TV while munching Cocoa Krispies, but she must also get drunk and behave inappropriately. Lawrence must not only embark on an apparently terrific sexual relationship with Janet, but he must also, during a trip to New York with a publisher who wants the book, revert to solipsism and behave inappropriately. And Chuck must not only be revealed as wise and wonderful, but also must instruct his uptight relatives in the possibilities of behaving appropriately. (James appears occasionally, but his function seems inordinately limited: his dorm room provides Chuck with a place to sleep, in order to underscore the lunacy of Lawrence's household. And what is Christine Lahti doing here for two minutes, as the department assistant scouring student evaluations to find one that praises rather than condemns Lawrence, the "conceited dickhead"?)

As he expends so much energy being angry and confused, Lawrence looks aptly exhausted through much of Noam Murro's movie. Chuck and Vanessa's decision to clean out the dead wife's closet and donate the contents to Goodwill leaves Lawrence quite beside himself, until he realizes that he does indeed need to move on, that his mourning and grousing are related, hat he doesn't, as Janet puts it, "have to act like a complete misanthrope."

The editor at Penguin describes his changing reactions to the book manuscript: "At first," he smirks, a standard-issue editor behind a busy desk, "I thought it was the driest piece of shit I ever read." But then, after some editorial tweaking, the tome was transformed into its true self: "It's almost like the book itself is a fucking bully. You can't read! Brilliant!" Will Lawrence take the revision and the label and the money? Will he come to understand that image is not the same as identity? And will he, at long last, be nice to someone who needs it? "I do have hope for myself," he declares. Good for him.

4

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.