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Bruce Bermelin/Courtesy Miramax Films WHO'S ON VERSE? Lit prof Dennis Quaid shows off his book learning to Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Smart People.'

College Brawl

'Smart People' goes from bad to verse

By Richard von Busack

IN Smart People, Carnegie-Mellon lit prof Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is known as a terror in the classroom, a snarler with a lumberjack's beard, wardrobe, red face and rough neck. His personal life as a widower is just as cheerless; his adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church, the film's highlight), is a slacker caught in a series of hand-to-mouth jobs. With a father like Lawrence and an uncle like Chuck, it's understandable why Vanessa (Ellen Page) has become a Republican overachiever. She's striving to get into Stanford, unlike her brother, James (Ashton Holmes), a dutiful son who got free tuition at Dad's college.

The swaying balance of this group is disturbed after the professor has a concussion. The emergency-room doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a former student of Lawrence's and has a longstanding crush on him even though he gave her a low grade in his class. The two become lovers, with mutual uneasiness on both sides. The crisis builds when Lawrence's previously unsellable book of literary criticism gets bought up by Penguin—a publishing firm presented as a crass place, but it apparently approved of the portrayal. The idea is to rename Lawrence's new book You Can't Read, to strip it down and to make it a nationwide provocation: "This book's title is like a fucking bully!" enthuses the editor. At the same time, Janet discovers that she's pregnant, and her feelings about Lawrence's selfishness can no longer be ignored.

Director Noam Murro is a noted maker of TV commercials, and in that line of work one must pack in a lot of information in 60 seconds. The downside of that is this movie's chronic unevenness; every snappy line has its opposite, the kind of word play that never should have left the printed page. Murro tries to build up maximum friction in the shortest amount of time, and as a result there's no one in the family really to root for as the trouble begins. (That is, except for Chuck the slacker, and he wanders in and out of the action, like the wacky neighbor in a sitcom.) The soundtrack—acoustic guitar that unfolds into a kind of jam derived from Satie's Gymnopedie—seems especially there to try to rustle up memories of Little Miss Sunshine. Yet the literary wit of that picture isn't here, even though this is almost an entire family of academics. One moment, when Lawrence teases out the meaning of Tennyson's "The Lotus Eaters" from the class, has some deeper meaning; in others, the literary life just means gravely reciting the first half of William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" to his date, Janet. And no, she doesn't laugh in his face.

Vanessa, with her almost incestuous urge to keep her family apart from the world, is the engine of the film. She is continually making sure things happen to a group of people in near complete stasis. Page is reprising the droll, last-word-loving girl she played in Juno. Smart People's moral is that smart people can mess up their lives as well as anyone. But there may be another lesson here, if the movie sinks: too much whip-smartness just leaves welts, and there's no quicker way to become a two-legged vial of box-office poison that to exude cold superiority onscreen.

Movie Times SMART PEOPLE  (R; 93 min.), directed by Noam Murro, written by Mark Poirier, photographed by Toby Irwin and starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker, opens April 11.

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