{mosimage}I wanted to love Smart People (95 minutes). 

Ellen Page is adorable, whether she is seeking revenge on child molesters or playing a sarcastic, pregnant teen (I will politely forget to mention X-Men 3). Thomas Haden Church, star of what is possibly the single most underrated comedy of the past 10 years, The Specials, is always good for a laugh. Even so, there is something missing from this full-of-potential romantic comedy. 

While director Noam Murro seems competent enough, perhaps writer Mark Poirier failed to give the script the kind of acerbic wit it so desperately needs. All the actors seem afflicted with frostbite, and even though there are attempts to create something profound, the entire movie comes across as a fast food version of an independent film.

Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) inhabits his job with the kind of depressed indifference you can only find in the middle-aged former idealist. One of his children, Vanessa (Page), desperately tries to fulfill the household duties of her late mother while seeking her mentally absent father’s approval and supporting the Republican Party. The other, James (Ashton Holmes), is building a life apart from his father. The professor’s adopted brother, Chuck (Church), enters the picture, disrupting the household and shaking up the suppressed, overachieving Vanessa. Meanwhile, over in the “B” plot, Wetherhold meets an emotionally stunted doctor named Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker).  

There are several awkward scenes between the professor and the doctor; unfortunately for the movie, Quaid and Parker don’t share much chemistry. Uncle Chuck, who seems like an OK guy, exercises some poor judgment in relation to Vanessa, and though their relationship develops realistically up to about halfway through the movie, the film lacks the courage of its convictions. If the writer wished to make something of the sexual tension that can develop between a post-adolescent in need of a daddy figure and a bad boy uncle who lacks boundaries, a more daring approach is really called for.  

The best scenes take place on the Carnegie Mellon campus in Pittsburgh, Pa. In fact, the campus scenes read as one long inside joke regarding the current state of academia. For instance, the professor’s failure to remember his students’ names or any details about their lives, coupled with his attitudes towards committees and office hours, will cause the college students in the audience to laugh (or groan) and everyone else to look blankly at the screen.

This film, which looks so good on paper, does not live up to its potential. Even so, some will find its cerebral tone and focus on the mundane worth a Saturday afternoon at the theater. Fans of Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), Juno (2007) and The Squid and the Whale (2005) should give this one a quick peek while maintaining low expectations.  


 

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