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.