Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is the kind of guy who casts a thick fog a regular pea souper over memories of our bright college years. He's the kind of teacher who routinely visits contempt on his students, contumely on his colleagues and a catastrophic self-involvement on any woman crazy enough to contemplate a relationship with him. Needless to say, he has accomplished nothing to justify his arrogance; he only has an excuse he continues to mourn the death of his wife.
When we meet him, he is illegally parking his car in a campus lot. When it is impounded, he manages to break a leg trying to rescue it, which brings him into contact with Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), to whom he once gave a bad grade, but who is unaccountably willing to forget and forgive a process he does not make easy for her. He does not make living with him easy for anyone. Not his super smart daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), doing a role reversal, in which she plays a sort of surrogate parent to him; not for Chuck, his feckless brother (hilariously played by Thomas Haden Church) not for anyone who crosses his lurching path.
The point of Smart People (which is directed by Noam Murro) is to return its anti-hero to something like civility, which is not exactly a startlingly original comic notion. Neither is its familiar academic setting, where so many mid-list novels are set. Indeed, we are told by Mark Poirier (who wrote the screenplay) that he originally conceived the story as a novel about university life, which I suppose somewhat limits its appeal to a mass audience. That said, its pretty conventional characters are often pretty funny. Or maybe I should say, surprisingly interesting. Ellen Page (recently of Juno ) brings her wise-child persona to a somewhat more mature character with ironic expertise. The same can be said of Church, who knows how to do slackers, without seeming to be one as an actor. Paradoxically, he's an energetic slob. Parker probably has the toughest assignment here, as a smart woman making a dumb choice. But she has charm and perkiness and if she doesn't entirely persuade us to suspend disbelief, she at least gets us to elide it.
But the movie really runs on Dennis Quaid's misanthropic conviction. He's one of those second-tier stars who has generally not been treated well by Hollywood. But whether he's called upon to play mulish, churlish or just to do some hard-charging action, we always sense an underlying decency in him he has a good soldier quality that can be very appealing. In a way, his work is emblematic of the movie as a whole. There's nothing world shattering about Smart People. No one is ever going to call it a "must see" movie. But it is a trim, intelligent, reasonably amusing little movie. Call it a "could see" something you can drop in on when you have nothing better to do and emerge from feeling not at all cheated by the experience.