When Thomas Haden Church is the wisest person in a movie called "Smart People," look out. This is one of those university comedies where the characters take themselves too seriously to be funny, which, come to think of it, seems a reasonable account of some lives on and off the tenure track. But it's a comedy despite the self-seriousness. The movie conjures up Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a self-absorbed, sad-sack English lit professor at Carnegie Mellon. His superiority complex also makes him covetous of a vacant department chair position.
Lawrence has been in a funk since his wife died. So complaining about him is like hitting a guy with glasses, I suppose. And based on the movie's obligatory upbeat ending (reasonable success, love), I'm guessing we're supposed to like Lawrence enough not to root for somebody to slug him, which Church comes closer than anybody to doing. He's playing Lawrence's half-stoned adopted brother Chuck, another of Church's endearing middle-aged slackers. (The movie's producers also brought us "Sideways," which also featured Church as a blissed-out underachiever.)
Chuck moves himself and his untamed goatee in with Lawrence and Vanessa (Ellen Page), Lawrence's know-it-all Young Republican daughter, who, in the movie's only interesting turn of events, develops a serious thing for her uncle. Chuck appears to be an adopted brother solely to make the attraction between him and Vanessa less unseemly. But the movie is soggy with seemliness. Lawrence can't remember the names of students, let alone see the future memoir-in-progress under his roof. He doesn't even know his older kid (Ashton Holmes) writes poetry. He's too busy trying to date Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), the sexy doctor who treats him after a fall. She also happens to be a former student. (He gave one of her papers a C.) Wait, suddenly we're in a pilot for a precious CBS drama?
Written by the novelist (and professor) Mark Poirier and directed by Noam Murro, in his debut, "Smart People" is as feeble as the pained wimp-rock mewling on the soundtrack. If one scene starts with a half-hearted guitar strum, they all do. Like "Juno," "Smart People" is a hipster's iPod playlist in search of a mug of locally brewed beer. At least in the other movie, the songs, annoying as they were, sounded like stuff Juno herself might like. Here it's unclear how Nuno Bettencourt's coffeehouse music applies to anyone in the film. Page, at least, seems to get how creepy Vanessa is. (What if Wednesday Addams were played by Tracy Flick of "Election"?) She approaches her latest older-man crush with her usual surly wit, vulnerability, and delusional world-weariness. And yet as I grow to like Page's bitter stylings, there's reason for concern. Vanessa reminds me of you-know-who. Might Page be forever Juno, trapped in whip-smarts and sarcasm? I worry that when the day comes for her to do "Medea," it'll sound more like Diablo Cody wrote it than Euripides.
In "Smart People," there's one funny scene where Lawrence can't bring himself to upgrade Janet's C, and for once his pained snobbery is comical. Otherwise, "Smart People" wields its intelligence defensively. The filmmakers are smart enough to know who wrote "Bleak House" and how to define "eft." (Quaid, Parker, and Page try to out-vocabularize each other before super-smug Vanessa takes the SAT.) But not smart enough, say, to consistently use the same-size pillow for Lawrence's potbelly, or give Christine Lahti more to do than hand Quaid sheets of paper in a scene or two.
None of the characters' or the filmmakers' knowledge illuminates, deepens, or complicates this movie in a way that keeps you from thinking longingly of Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys," which was also about a grouchy Pittsburgh professor. That movie had adventure. This movie has a lot of sitting around. At some point Lawrence takes Janet to Manhattan, and Janet never leaves the hotel - she doesn't even phone Kim Cattrall or Cynthia Nixon. Mostly, "Smart People" is a failure of imagination. When Church turns to Quaid and says, "We should be gay," all you can think is, "Well, why aren't you, then?"
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.