Intelligence runs in the Wetherhold family DNA. Smart People's curmudgeonly protagonist, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), indifferently teaches literature at Carnegie Mellon University, where his bright son (Ashton Holmes) is a student. His daughter Vanessa (Juno's Ellen Page), a high school senior and control freak, runs the homestead with an iron fist.
Meanwhile, Lawrence's dim adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) can barely earn a living, but he knows how to express his feelings and enjoy life. When Lawrence loses his driver's license, Chuck volunteers to be his adopted brother's chauffeur in a too-convenient comedic setup. Smart People embraces familiar plotting in its approach to humor and the redemption of flawed personalities. For the most part, director Noam Murro, screenwriter Mark Poirier and their cast prove clever enough to prevent the title from becoming a misnomer.
Like a softer, less downbeat version of Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, Smart People crafts sharp dialogue that conveys superficial book smarts without caricaturing intellectuals. The script doesn't underestimate its audience's wits, either. In one amusing detail, Lawrence's former-student-turned-current-paramour, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), drops by for Christmas dinner and brings a cake that features the brand name of an antidepressant on the icing. We can presume that a pharmaceutical company gave the cake to Janet's hospital – a joke is there if you care to unpack it.
Smart People seldom surprises, but it offers a terrific, low-key showcase for its cast. Armored in academic tweeds, Lawrence's prickly self-absorption gives an edge to Quaid's usual likability. Page plays Vanessa as a Bizarro World version of Juno: She has the same sarcastic tongue, but obsesses over SAT scores and Young Republicans meetings instead of punk rock and splatter films. Parker seems to relish the chance to play a moodier, less perky role than Carrie Bradshaw.
Parker, Holmes and the reliably amusing Church suffer from some of the script's vagueness, as if the filmmakers never really figured out which of the characters' conflicts were the important ones. Smart People nevertheless thinks up some affection and insight for the Wetherholds, who know plenty of big words but frequently seem to outsmart themselves.