Another week and another dysfunctional American family comedy. Scripted by novelist Mark Poirier and directed by newcomer Noam Murro, Smart People examines the improbable rejuvenation of widowed, middle-aged English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), who teaches Victorian literature at a Pittsburgh campus. Contemptuous towards his students and colleagues alike, the irascible and narcissistic Lawrence is also emotionally detached from his children, undergraduate son James (Ashton Holmes) and his sardonic, overachieving Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page).
Naturally, Lawrence must be rescued from his curmudgeonly isolation and move forward from his wife’s death. Enter both his feckless adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who turns up with a house-guest cum chauffeur, and a romantic interest in the shape of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ER doctor, Janet Hartigan, who once nursed a student crush on Lawrence.
Shot in autumnal tones, and accompanied by an irksome soft-rock soundtrack, Smart People is scuppered by the lack of chemistry between its two romantic leads. Why should the female medic be tolerant of her lover’s self-absorption and unpleasantness? And why does Parker deliver such a subdued performance? Unlike Noah Baumbach’s comparable The Squid and the Whale, the filmmakers here are committed to softening the protagonist’s misanthropy, resulting in disappointingly predictable fare.
Selected release from Fri 16 May.