Judging by the movies, you would think that college professors everywhere are in desperate need of a hug. That continues with “Smart People,” a dramedy in which Dennis Quaid plays a cold intellectual in need of an emotional thawing. The premise has the makings of predictable indie tripe, but “Smart People” is ultimately saved from also-ran status by a cast of actors who burrow inside their respective characters for performances that ring with authenticity.
Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold, a cranky literature professor at Carnegie Mellon and a depressed widower so contemptuous of humanity that he rigs his office clock just to avoid meeting with his students. Karma smacks down Lawrence when he tries scaling a fence to get his impounded car. The resulting head injury prevents his being able to drive for six months.
Enter Lawrence’s ne’er-do-well adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church), who offers to chauffeur the prof in exchange for a place to crash, and works as a corrupting influence on Lawrence’s overachieving, uptight daughter (Ellen Page). Meanwhile, Lawrence gets his own tutelage in life from an ER doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker).
One of the most refreshing aspects of “Smart People” is its refusal to spoon-feed. It presumes smart people are in the audience, too. The performances are certainly intelligent. The criminally underestimated Quaid lends a palpable sadness to Lawrence. Church has some hilariously droll moments, and Page proves her versatility.
“Smart People” is a good picture that deserves acclaim for intelligence and effort.