Dennis Quaid, who was very famous in the Reagan era, plays Professor Lawrence Wetherhold. That's kind of like naming a character "Edwin Huddlington Thornapple III," in that you know just by the name that he's gonna be a blowhard.
But Prof. Wetherhold isn't just a blowhard. He also is a jerk, which we know because every time he parks his car, he takes two parking spaces. His parking, you see, reveals his character. It's expository parking.
Now, you're probably thinking: Prof. Wetherhold is a stiff old college professor; surely, his life is devoid of potential cinematic interest. Well, you'd be right, but just to check the thesis, director Noam Murro and writer Mark Poirier throw a zany curveball into the mix: Prof. Wetherhold has a free-wheeling, unemployed, adopted brother who's always borrowing money that he never repays.
We know this, because Wetherhold walks into his office, where his brother is on the Xerox machine photocopying his man-stuff, and they have the following conversation:
Zany Brother: Aren't you happy to see your brother?
Stiff Professor: Adopted brother.
Zany Brother: Can I ask you a favor?
Stiff Professor: You already owe me $1,200!
I've redacted a bit for brevity's sake, but that's pretty much how it goes. It probably would have seemed more natural if they had both simply faced the camera and read the section of the writer's notebook in which he lays out the characters.
So that's reasonably painful, but the most horrifying thing about Smart People is that Quaid is not just the lead; he's the romantic lead. It's unclear if he's supposed to be handsome, but there's definitely supposed to be something attractive about him. It's hard to figure out what that is, since his character is unpleasant, and his face could most charitably be described as "leathery."
Even stranger is the selection of Sarah Jessica Parker as Dr. Janet Hartigan, the female romantic lead. By way of clarification, the Stiff Professor's Zany Brother refers to her as the "hot doctor." Because she's hot. It's important that he mentions this, because it's not the sort of thing that would be even vaguely obvious by, say, looking at her.
I like the idea of having visually unattractive people as romantic leads, but what's disturbing is that Hollywood can't come to grips with this concept. So if the beauty-challenged are romantically linked, it's either played for broad comedy, or there's a general denial that these people are not exactly Vogue cover models, which is how it works in Smart People. I mean, there's the emperor; he's completely naked; and everyone keeps saying, "Wow, what a lovely outfit. I wish I had a suit like that."
Besides all the exposition and the cringe-inducing romance, Smart People actually does have a strong upside: When they're not explicating their own back stories, the characters all crack wise. So the dialogue is all something like, "My mother is dead, and I am trying to raise myself alone in the presence of my emotionally absent father. Also: zany, contextually relevant laugh line."
But the weird thing is that the zany, contextually relevant laugh lines are actually funny. Well, at least they are when they're spoken by Ellen Page, who plays The Stiff Professor's Uptight, Politically Conservative Daughter. While it's insipid to have her character's uptightness defined by her political conservatism, Page actually pulls the whole thing off. This, far more than her performance in Juno, really shows that she's an excellent actress. Anyone can make good material sound good. In Smart People, she's getting laughs from jokes that fell out of Henny Youngman's pocket while he was sleeping on the couch in 1947.
She gets some help from Thomas Haden Church, who plays the Zany Brother, but she's mostly on her own here. In my dream version of this movie, The Stiff Professor and The "Hot" Doctor go on one date, and then decide they don't like each other. The Stiff Professor then heads to a conference in, I don't know, Uzbekistan, and he's out of the movie. And the remaining 75 minutes is just Ellen Page saying witty things about whatever's lying around her room.