US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Smart People

By Patrick McCormick | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Directed by Noam Murro (Miramax, 2008)

In a land where brains and hard work are supposed to produce success and happiness, there are a lot of smart, miserable failures. Noam Murro's dark but heartfelt comedy about a widowed and depressed literature professor and his dysfunctional brood takes a long, loving look at a clan of bright but clueless souls who keep stomping on one another's toes in their quest for love.

Middle-aged misanthrope Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) believes he should be made chair of the English department, even though he has no time for colleagues or students and has made a mess of his family. His alienated son James (Ashton Holmes) has moved out. His Barry Goldwater-wannabe teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) has the ambition of Caesar and the social skills of an android. And his career-challenged half-brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) is crashing in a closet upstairs.

When stupid behavior lands the chronically grumpy Lawrence in the local ER, his doctor turns out to be former student Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who once had a crush on him. Though eager to take up a romance with the cute doc, Lawrence's early dates are painful to watch. As the stumbling romance progresses, Chuck offers relationship advice, Vanessa fears the loss of her father's attention, and Janet wonders if being alone is really all that bad.

In a fairy tale the love of a good woman would heal all wounds, and Lawrence the curmudgeon would be transformed into a father, scholar, and prince. But in a film like this one, the steps are smaller and growth can be measured in inches. Painfully aware of how important Janet could be to him, and of the limits that keep him from showing up for her and his children, Lawrence makes some modest but crucial changes, hoping they will be enough to turn the tide. To paraphrase a smart line, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try real hard you can give other folks what they need."