by Tony Dayoub
Smart People is an intimate little film replete with great performances. Having premiered in Sundance earlier this year, the film is a sharp-edged comedy that features some well-known actors cast against type. Thomas Haden Church as a sweet, wise slacker; Sarah Jessica Parker as a physician with low expectations for her personal life; Ellen Page as a young overachieving Republican... each is fascinating to watch in their individual performances. But the film rests on the more than proper shoulders of one of the most underrated actors of our time, Dennis Quaid, who as Lawrence Wetherhold, must walk the thin line between hateful misanthrope and likable grouch.
Wetherhold is a widowed college professor, living a semblance of a life, while still managing to excel at a tendency for monstrous self-absorption. His daughter, Vanessa (Page), loses herself in her pursuit of an Ivy League college admission. His son, James (Ashton Holmes), is the only one who has escaped the growing depressive atmosphere of their home. And the stirring of a romance with a former student of his, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), seems destined to continue the family's descent, since Hartigan's life seems marred by her own brand of self-pity. But when Wetherhold's brother, Chuck (Church) - adopted brother, as he is often reminded of - comes to stay for a while, he starts helping the family grow past their emotionally stunted existence.
If any one is playing against type in this cast it is the good-ole-boy likable, aw-shucks good-looking Quaid. His Wetherhold is an erudite, bullying intellectual who is shopping a manuscript around the publishing houses entitled, "You Can't Read!" daring his readers to think critically when analyzing literature. He also has a full beard, dresses in tweed, and looks about 25 pounds heavier. But beyond the hunched posture, and slow shuffle of this tale's Willy Loman, you can still see Quaid's dynamic persona. Yes, the slow drawl that characterized his performance as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp (for which he lost a scary amount of weight), or the glint of the eye that he featured so prominently as Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff, may be hidden, but somehow, Quaid's charisma still manages to keep you focused on Wetherhold in all of his quiet stillness.
Without his fine performance this would be just another indie with a collection of oddball emotionally immature characters in search of life's answers. Unsurprisingly, Smart People, and its cast, succeed because of the strong center he provides to this familiar story.
Smart People is available on DVD and Blu-ray Hi-Def today.
Still provided courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment.