Whether one chooses to be generous and call “Smart People” a companion piece to Noah Baumbach’s dryly hilarious dysfunction screed “The Squid and the Whale” (2006), or critical and call it a cheap imitation, the fact remains: It’s not nearly as good.
Certainly, director Noam Murro’s ode to a family of well-educated misanthropes owes a cosmetic debt to Baumbach, down to Dad’s early-model Swedish automobile and unpublished manuscript that pokes holes in his inflated ego.
But whereas Baumbach confronted the hard reality of vanity and soul-sickness, Murro tries to turn them into something cute; funny little personality defects easily rectified by a 12-step program of dating and family togetherness. It stops being funny when you realize the parody is unintentional.
Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a monumentally self-absorbed widower who seems determined to broadcast his disdain for everything that isn’t Lawrence Wetherhold. Driving to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in his professor-y Saab sedan, Lawrence, a lit scholar who tosses around the word “epistemology” like it was a handshake, always makes sure to take up two parking spots. He also has a knack for forgetting the names of his students. In short, he’s a jerk.
A good deal of Lawrence’s intellectual arrogance has rubbed off on his daughter, Vanessa, a bookish, frigid snot who can barely rip herself away from an SAT prep manual long enough to visit Lawrence in the hospital after his failed attempt to liberate the Saab from an impound lot. Played by “Juno” leading lady Ellen Page, Vanessa makes for a grating if rancorously amusing reflection of her father in first-time screenwriter Mark Poirier’s script. There’s also a son, James (Ashton Holmes), who feels comparatively underwritten and seems to exist for no other purpose than to exchange hateful dinner-table repartee with Vanessa.
The arrival of two outsiders will put the family’s healing in motion. First, Lawrence’s “giant toddler” of an adoptive brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church from “Sideways”), shows up looking for a handout. (Nothing like a feckless loser with a penchant for comical butt-cheek exposure to show a family of unhappy overachievers the error of their ways, right?)
Later, Lawrence strikes up an awkward romance with Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who makes his ice caps melt.
It all feels so counterfeit, so rigorously circumscribed, one could almost imagine “Smart People” as a “Scary Movie”-style sendup of Baumbach’s corduroy dramas. It doesn’t help that a conspicuously nongrinning Quaid (“The Rookie”) feels miscast as Lawrence. The book-smart part, that’s doable. He’s just lousy at playing a louse.
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church,
Behind the scenes: Directed by Noam Murro, from a script by Mark Poirier
Rating: R (profanity, brief teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexuality), 95 minutes