Take the script for “Sideways,” replace the bottled-up wine snob with a dusty literature snob, take out the road trip, keep Thomas Haden Church, take out most of the comedy and a bit of the depth, and what you're left with is, in a nutshell, “Smart People.”
“Smart People” is about the trials and humiliations of Dr. Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a smug lit professor with a similarly smug genius daughter (Ellen Page), a distant son (Ashton Holmes), and a ne'er-do-well estranged brother (Church). Lawrence is scrabbling both to win the position of department chair and to land a publishing contract for his book, but his myopic focus on academic glory is shaken in a single day after two things happen: His brother resurfaces and he seriously injures himself climbing a fence.
Lawrence wakes up in the E.R. under the care of Dr. Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student. Because of his injury, he will not be allowed to drive for six months, effectively tethering him to his brother as an unpaid chauffeur. Meanwhile his daughter, a humorless, friendless young Republican, continues her own monomaniacal pursuit of success (a perfect SAT score and acceptance at Stanford), and his son quietly distances himself from both of them.
As you're probably guessing, Lawrence will pursue salvation through romance with the young doctor, the daughter will discover how to lighten up through time spent with Lawrence's brother, and the son ... well, the son doesn't actually do much of anything, which is a bit of a disappointment.
The movie has entertaining, smart and funny moments, but not as many as you'll want it to have. It tries very hard to be the spiritual successor to films like “Sideways” and “Wonder Boys,” but it doesn't quite make it there, doesn't delve deeply enough into the lives of its characters, and occasionally even trades what could be authentic laughs for mockery. We are intended to feel a small stab of contempt for Lawrence and his daughter before we are allowed access to their humanity, but to that end the film (and the actors themselves) give us just this side of vapid caricatures of elitist intellects that don't mesh well with the people we are to meet later.
My biggest complaint and praise for the movie, then, is this: It left me wanting more. I wanted to see more of what Lawrence's daughter suffers through, more of what's behind his brother's aimless existence, more of frankly anything out of his son, who's more of a plot device than a character and yet is potentially more interesting than most of the rest of his family. “Smart People” keeps coming right up to the edge of giving us some of that but backs away as the next plot point presents itself, and in the end, it's not very satisfying.
— Matthew Reed