This dramedy of a dysfunctional family benefits from some acerbic dialogue while being too episodic.
Smart People is the creation of a novelist and commercials director, and it shows, though blessed with a talented cast, including Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, and Ellen Page.
The mood established by helmer Noam Murro is a darkly wry one, with Quaid's Lawrence Wetherhold a narcissistic middle-aged university professor. That occupation has been on display in recent dramas like Lions for Lambs and the hit 21.
The widower hasn't taken criticism by publishers for his work very well. So, the crotchety guy, once ambitious, doesn't salute that quality in his students whom he has trouble remembering when they participate in class. He's also alienated his two older kids, son James (Ashton Holmes of A History of Violence) and overachieving high school daughter Vanessa (Page, hot off her nominated turn in Juno).
Church really is a good luck charm or Chuck as that character is Lawrence's ne'er-do-well "adopted" brother who abruptly pops in. Chuck, who enjoys idling about as a stoner, is in state of financial bother.
The ads for Smart People prominently feature Lawrence in the hospital as the result of a seizure. Parker (soon to be seen in big-screen adaptation of "Sex and the City") happens to be his doctor Janet, once a freshman in his literature class. Their "reunion" will cause him to reconsider how he interacts in the world around him, as he is without the power he is use to having.
Parker tries to work some her comedic charm into a character that helps bring Lawrence off of his high horse. It works to a degree, though sparks really don't fly with Quaid. She brought more zest to her outsider in The Family Stone.
The script from Mark Jude Poirier perhaps leaves Quaid and Parker a bit undernourished, but creates more viewer sympathy for Church and Page who make it better than it really should be.
Chuck knows Vanessa has potential away from a life of intelligensia, as Lawrence has fashioned her with anti-social qualities. The unsuccessful, uneducated sibling has the ability to connect with the emotions of the angst-ridden young woman. It makes for some amusing scenes between them while Vanessa's more relaxed which adds to the film's adult nature.
Smart People delves into repression with some humorous, ironic results. Though the production has an admirable sheen with the music privvy to the wavering conditions of the characters it lacks the subtlety and dramatic cohesion. Though, when Vanessa and Chuck inhabit the story something lively often comes off the page that seems like a blessing.