In "Smart People," Dennis Quaid, his handsomeness distorted and obscured by stooped shoulders, a sagging belly and wayward facial hair, plays Lawrence Wetherhold, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon whose general unpleasantness seems less like a personality trait than like a belief system. His narcissism is a seamless coat of many colors, a weave of grief for his dead wife, resentment at how much the world demands of him and the conviction that he is smarter than everybody else. His son, James (Ashton Holmes), an aspiring poet and a student at the college, finds Lawrence's imperiousness nearly intolerable, while his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), carefully tends the flame of her father's ego and takes him as a role model in contrarianism. Secure in the sense of her own superiority and proud of her political conservatism, Vanessa is Diablo Cody's Juno rewritten by Ayn Rand. Actually, the excellent script for "Smart People" is the work of Mark Jude Poirier, a fiction writer who has clearly spent enough time around English departments to have studied the tribal ways of the literary professoriate with ethnographic rigor. The scenes of Lawrence in the classroom or in department meetings are among the most frighteningly, comically accurate such moments I have ever seen on film. That may sound like a minor accomplishment, but the great virtue of "Smart People," attributable to Noam Murro's easygoing direction as well as to Mr. Poirier's wandering screenplay, lies in its general preference for small insights over grand revelations.
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