In Smart People, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a literature professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who is hopelessly unconcerned with the people around him. Crippled by grief over the death of his wife several years earlier, he lives with his elbows out, avoiding meaningful interaction with students, fellow teachers, and his two teenage children.
The college-aged son, James (Ashton Holmes), gets little screen time and serves largely as a sort of prop to illustrate how Lawrence's children have responded differently to his curmudgeonly behavior. James is all secrecy and anger, whereas 17-year old Vanessa pulls out the stops to earn her father's affection. Ellen Page plays Vanessa like an angst-ridden version of Alex P. Keaton—a member of the Young Republicans who wears turtlenecks and sleeps in front of a wall full of blue ribbons.
Smart People presents the first post-Juno opportunity for audiences to see the Oscar-nominated Page on the big screen. And while she plays yet another smart-alecky teenager, her turn here as the tightly wound daughter of Quaid's misanthropic professor suggests that 1) she is no flash in the pan and 2) she has a penchant for spotting and signing on to play complex roles. She's by far the most interesting character in Smart People.
But this is her father's story. When his bull-headed behavior lands him in the hospital, he reconnects with a former student, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), now the head of the emergency room. Their halting romance serves as the catalyst for a kind of reawakening for Lawrence, but it's also a head scratcher. We're given few hints on which to build a back story for the good doctor—she had a schoolgirl crush on the professor and she's left ...1
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