'Smart People': Home Grueling, By Kurt Loder

Ellen Page and Dennis Quaid fend off family-comedy cliches.

Dennis Quaid, bearded, paunchy and sodden with self-loathing, is Lawrence Wetherhold, a middle-aged lit professor who's soured on his job, his students and life in all of its dismal particulars. A longtime widower who's written a book — his ticket out of academe — that nobody wants to publish, Wetherhold is a man who wears his misery like a favorite old, tattered jacket. One night, as if in confirmation of his bleak worldview, he suffers a seizure and winds up in the hospital, where the ER doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), turns out to be a former student. Wetherhold doesn't remember her, of course; it's been a long time since he cared enough about any of his students to remember them. She remembers him, though — as the condescending jerk who once gave her a C on an essay, along with the snotty notation that "it rambles like a bad folk song."

Given this unpromising history, you'd figure that romance would be the remotest of possibilities here. But then we learn that Janet had a crush on Wetherhold back in the day, and before long romance is on the menu once again. This is not especially believable, and Janet is a bit too blandly unfocused a character to really sell it to us. Fortunately, Quaid, who burrows into Wetherhold's spiritual wreckage with mordant relish, has rarely been funnier, and he helps steer "Smart People" away from what it might easily have become — just another quirk-stuffed tale of family dysfunction.

He gets a lot of help from the family. Wetherhold's daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), is a rebellious teen whose filial estrangement takes the form of preppy conservatism: Her bedroom is a shrine to Ronald Reagan, its walls thick with blue ribbons and other tokens of her superior scholastic abilities. (Whipping up dinner one night, she uses a recipe she translated herself from Old French.) Vanessa is also a master of withering sarcasm: Long reconciled to her wifeless father's lack of romantic enterprise, she tells him, "I completely respect your homosexuality."

Then there's Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Wetherhold's beer-swilling, pot-smoking layabout brother (or "adopted brother," as Wetherhold is quick to note whenever an introduction seems unavoidable). Chuck is newly jobless, and thus homeless, and when he learns that his brother's seizure has ruled out driving for awhile, he quickly volunteers his services as a chauffeur. On moving into the downbeat household, however, he's alarmed by its funless vibe, and especially by Vanessa ("a scary android"). In an effort to loosen up his frosty niece, he offers to share a joint with her ("Great," she says, "I'm in an after-school special"), and then sneaks her into a bar. ("If you think older, you'll appear older," he assures her.)

Need it be said that Vanessa does loosen up, and that her loser dad is ultimately redeemed by love? The story has the predictability of a Big Mac with fries. (It also has an underwritten sibling, Vanessa's older brother James, played by Ashton Holmes, whose minimal utility makes the character seem like a vestigial remnant of some earlier version of the story.) But the script, a first-time effort by comic novelist Mark Jude Poirier, glitters with zingy repartee; and the first-time director, Noam Murro, who made his bones in Starbucks commercials, maintains a genial pace that gives the lively banter room to bloom.

What really puts the movie over, though, is the unflagging chemistry among Quaid, Page and Church. As she's already demonstrated in "Hard Candy" and of course "Juno," Page, now 21, is a fully formed actress with a striking gift for drop-dead irony. She couldn't have a more companionable foil than Church, the soulful Sandman of "Spider-man 3," who's a virtuoso of laid-back self-deprecation. And Quaid, slouching and grumbling through the picture in violation of every rule of leading-man deportment, provides a pall of comically self-absorbed gloom that allows them both to shine. "Smart People" won't change anybody's life — it's a little too slight and unassuming. It might well improve a Saturday night, though.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Street Kings," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Smart People."

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