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The smart and the heartless

Brainiacs will love the dialogue, brainiac-haters will love the brainiac-hatin’.

“What’s up with smart people?” is what this film’s glib, peppy title seems to be asking. Sure we know that they love conservative sweaters, red wine and Victorian poetry, but why are they so square and emotionally, well, retarded?

Smart People

STARRING: Ellen Page, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dennis Quaid
PLAYING AT: Area theaters

Launching itself from this shaky paradigm, the film zooms in on a Pittsburgh family of scholars who write books about epistemology and hang out in the 99th percentile of SAT scores. But as brilliant as they are, they don’t know that the joke’s on them in this script, which paints them as so mercilessly distant from regular human interaction that even the viewer with a popcorn kernel on his front tooth can feel smug in relation.

Mourning the loss of the matriarch in the Wetherhold family, Ellen Page and Dennis Quaid play a father-daughter team of academic bullies and sexually frustrated social recluses. Their routine of living out an overly Electra complex is shaken up when an amorous doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) and an adopted brother/uncle (Thomas Hayden Church) invade the family. There’s also a dorm-inhabiting brother in the film, but his character remains perpetually in an embryonic stage, only serving as a sex-getting, party-going normal person that points out how sad the main characters are.

Even more gratifying than condemning snobby elitists is seeing Ellen Page in such a well-suited role. Her fit as Vanessa Wetherhold may be even better than her role as the selfless yet cynical Juno. Her nasal voice and tomboy prettiness make her perfect for the snark that comes with being an eternally unimpressed Young Republican.

While “Smart People” is too clever to have lags in the dialogue or choppy storytelling, a few facets of the characters just don’t seem believable. No matter how lonely a girl like Vanessa Wetherhold might be, it seems unlikely that she would go from explaining to her homeless uncle, “My fun’s just a little more cerebral than yours,” to getting trashed and trying to kiss him. (Although it might be more believable if his character wasn’t played by a Hercules look-alike with a redneck moustache. Qué chic.) Church’s character has its own cracks as he attempts to portray both the family screw-up and the voice of wisdom with naught but a few stereotypes jammed together.

Some people can resist hating films simply because their characters are “pompous windbags” and some people can’t. Watching Vanessa justify their self-absorption to her father with the explanation that, “People like you and me don’t need to compensate,” will probably rub most people too far the wrong way. For those who can look past it, “Smart People” is an entertaining and playful critique of the inhumanity that can justify itself in cool intelligence.

But wait a second. Wasn’t that movie already made three years ago? “The Squid and the Whale” did the same thing, portraying a highly educated family whose nucleus is an unapologetic cruelty. Unlike “Smart People,” “The Squid and the Whale” tried really damn hard to make viewers feel bad for the characters, rather than simply feel better than them.

The Lou Reed-infested soundtrack was better too. In comparison, “Smart People” is “The Squid and the Whale” 2.0, souped-up to be less painful, more user-friendly, and to add a bit of marketable glitz. Not necessarily better.

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