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It Works in Theory 

Most everyone who works in academia, as I do, knows someone like Lawrence Wetherhold, Dennis Quaid's character in Smart People. Lawrence is an English professor at Carnegie-Mellon. He performs the requisites of his job. He shows up to teach his classes, and he grades papers. But he really doesn't do his job well. His comments on student essays are dashed sneers designed to belittle rather than instruct. He doesn't bother to learn his students' names. He keeps minimal office hours and avoids interacting with students whenever he can. As a result of his surliness with those he is employed to teach, he gets terrible student evaluations. If he didn't already have tenure, he wouldn't, or at least he shouldn't, get it. Yet because he has it, he lurches on, inflicting his own misery on others. Lawrence is not a typical college professor, thank goodness, but his type is common enough to provide the material for an interesting story. Unfortunately, Smart People is less interested in Lawrence's professional failings than in building a pedestrian romantic comedy around his character. I can't help suspecting that this film is the result of meddling studio executives who insist that fresh ideas be jammed into airless jars of stale formula. Written by Mark Poirier and directed by Noam Murro, Smart People has another potentially fruitful narrative thread. Lawrence has a brilliant and ambitious 17-year-old daughter named Vanessa (Ellen Page) who has gotten perfect scores on her SATs but seems to lack both friends and a soul. We eventually come to understand that Lawrence's bitterness has affected his relationship with both Vanessa and her brother James (Ashton Holmes), a budding poet who treats his father with naked contempt. Meanwhile, Vanessa's academic drive is a bid for her father's attention and affection.

The root of Lawrence's unhappiness lies in the death of his wife when his children were still young, an undeveloped explanation that is never very convincing. Lawrence's lingering grief provides the film its excuse to introduce the woman who can provide the vehicle of his salvation. When the out-of-shape professor works himself into a major snit over the towing of his car, he tries to climb a fence at the auto pound, falls on his face and ends up in the emergency room, where his attending physician, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), just happens to be a former student who has been nursing a crush on him for what must be a couple of decades. Fiction always requires elements of contrivance, but this one is particularly thin, and narratively, it is puzzling when the cast also includes Christine Lahti in an indecently minor role as one of Lawrence's colleagues " the only one who is supportive of him. But, of course, despite her immense talent, Lahti isn't the star that Parker is.

Well, a conk on the head leads to a shot in the rump and a sympathetic hand on a shoulder. Pretty soon doctor and patient are sipping red wine over a white table cloth, and despite the fact that Lawrence gas bags on about literary theory for an hour, they still end up horizontal in the bedroom. I come out of an English department, and I know people who have opted for suicide when confronted with literary theory, so I am shocked to discover that for some it is an aphrodisiac. Either that or Janet decides that sex is perhaps the best way to make Lawrence stop talking.

No romantic comedy is ever executed in a straight line, and this one doesn't break the predictable zig-zag mold. Professor gets doctor. Professor loses doctor. Will professor get doctor back so that all can be right with the world? If you've ever been to this kind of flick before, you know the answer. What's odd is the execution of the lovers' mid-picture break up. Lawrence has been trying to publish a book on literary theory that has met with a series of rejections. Finally, though, a big commercial publisher decides to issue it. This is approximately as likely as Disney deciding to bring out the director's edition of Debbie Does Dallas, but it is good news in the context of the movie. For reasons that must have been left on the cutting room floor, however, Janet is put off by Lawrence's sudden success. The formula is applied whether it makes any sense or not. And in the end, that's all we get. The characters are abandoned so the formula can prevail.

click to enlarge Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) seduces Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) with his vast knowledge of literary theory. - 2008 MIRAMAX
  • 2008 Miramax
  • Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) seduces Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) with his vast knowledge of literary theory.
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