Dennis Quaid is a surly professor and “Juno’s” Ellen Page is his Young Republican daughter in the predictable but consistently enjoyable “Smart People.” Quaid’s Lawrence is a widower who seems to have shut down even perfunctory efforts to be a polite, decent member of society. Whether he’s taking up two parking spaces, going through the motions in class or dealing with his son and daughter, he’s a jerk. Quaid perfectly captures a certain type of gracelessly aging academic who’s brilliant but socially inept. You probably had a teacher like him.
Thomas Haden Church makes a brave choice with in facial hair and exudes a ton of slacker charism as Lawrence’s brother Chuck. Sarah Jessica Parker has some nice moments as a former student of Lawrence’s who is now a doctor and still has a crush on him. I like Parker so much more when she's not doing the Carrie Bradshaw shoes/man/shoes/friend/shoes/superficial thing. And Ellen Page’s Vanessa is a hyper-achieving student who lives for her father’s acceptance and resents the hell out of his new girlfriend. We love the Ellen Page.
With its acerbic tone and its knowledge of the academic’s life, “Smart People” reminded me of “Wonder Boys” and “The Squid and the Whale.” It’s not that strong, mainly because we can see just about every development coming. But screenwriter Mark Jude Poirer and director Noam Murro have created a funny, sometimes painfully spot-on dysfunctional family drama. Quaid gives one of his best performances in years, Church owns every scene he’s in, and did I mention we love the Ellen Page? The final act of “Smart People” was too conventional for my tastes, but this is a good and yes, smart, film.