Smart People isn't really a good movie, and nothing I can say can change that fact. This is particularly galling, because I actually liked Smart People, and liking movies that I can tell aren't very good always leaves me feeling like I'm easy to manipulate. My lack of critical strength notwithstanding, it's a film that does several things wrong, and those things it gets right are largely cribbed from better movies. I will try my best to review accordingly.

Dennis Quaid (or "Quaid the Greater" as we call him in the Quaid-comparing biz) stars as Dr. Lawrence Wetherhold, an inconceivably unpleasant Victorian literature professor at Carnegie Mellon University, a man who insults students for sport when he's not busy with his manuscript for a book claiming that the entire history of literary criticism is intellectually bankrupt. His family life consists of a son, Jim (Ashton Holmes), a student at Carnegie Mellon who goes out of his way to avoid the old man, and a daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), a sort of Stepford child in the Young Republicans at high school, studying for a perfect SAT score and failing to inform her father that she's been accepted to school across the country, as the latest in what seems to be an ongoing passive-aggressive battle of wills. Neither of Lawrence's two darling children is enough of a distraction to keep the constant memory of his dead wife, their mother, out of the Wetherhold house, which consequently feels like a musty and lifeless crypt.

During a bout of assholery, Lawrence manages to induce a seizure, and thus his driver's license is revoked for six months (this seemed like a handy contrivance to me, but sure enough, Pennsylvania is one of just a handful states to keep a law like that on the books). This introduces two much livelier characters into the Wetherhold circle: Lawrence's adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), a cash-strapped layabout who jumps at the chance to serve as chauffeur with free room and board, and Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), who treats Lawrence at the ER, and just so happens to be a former student of his who once harbored a powerful crush on him (and this is a handy contrivance, but one that occurs early enough in the film that it's okay). In their own ways, Chuck and Janet teach Lawrence and Vanessa how not to be such mirthless assholes - see, the Wetherholds are extremely smart people, but they don't know anything about life. It's ironic.

Let's shoot the elephant in the room right away: Lawrence's inevitable growth into something resembling a decent human being who cares about what other people think is not handled well at all (it's not quite as arbitrary as Vanessa's, but she's also much less present of a character). Apparently, when he was about ten pages from the end, first-time screenwriter Mark Poirier thought to himself "if Lawrence is still a dick at the end, nobody will like the movie," and between pages 83 and 84, the character has an awakening that doesn't end up on-screen. It is storytelling by fiat: since we see that the character is changed, he must have experienced that change, and since we were watching him for an hour and a half, we must have seen it. It wouldn't have taken much more than stretching the film's last 30 minutes to 40 to give that character arc space to expand enough for the audience to recognise it as such. The filmmakers didn't do that, and the arc doesn't expand, and we don't see it. It's a terrifyingly wrong note to end a film that is rarely less than decent for most of its running time.

That's the big problem. The small problems are really simple and obvious: when the film is trying to be original, it's unpleasant and pretentious, and when the film works, it's only because it's playing a bit like a spot-the-reference of quirky anti-comedies from the last decade. There's the overall tone, best described as "brilliant intellectuals are awesomely fucked-up, which we can all appreciate, since everyone watching the film is a brilliant intellectual" taken straight from Wonder Boys; the family dynamic is just a half-step from Little Miss Sunshine, with fewer characters; Church and Page are basically just playing their characters from Sideways and Juno. The look and the smart-ass comic tone are essentially indistinguishable from most of what comes out of Sundance.

This doesn't all add up to "bad", and I'm not trying to argue that Smart People is "bad": it isn't good. There's an important shade of difference there. What keeps the movie from being completely unwatchable is that it's mostly entertaining if you're not instantly turned off by its self-consciously priggish leads (there is comedy, and some of it is genuinely funny, not just hip 'n' ironic), and that it has some really fine acting going on. The weak link amongst the four leads is undoubtedly Page: those of us who were only just won over by the actress's charms in Juno will be amply reminded of all the things that we don't like about her once confronted by her trademark s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g out of lines and snarky inflection, without the benefit of Diablo Cody's stylised dialogue. But Church, Parker and especially Quaid are all in fine form, perhaps surprisingly in Parker's case. She has a somewhat unplayable character to play, and she doesn't always come off flawlessly, but this is a world away from her usual happily ditzy persona, and as the only character in the film with a moral compass, she turns out to be really good at justified indignation.

The men run away with the film, though. Church is basically reprising the character that put him on the map as a proper actor, but he finds plenty of other things to do with the role, all while sporting a remarkably porntastic 'stache. He brings a zen stillness to the "addled goofball" form that might have drifted into zany without a believably sad face behind the requisite "loosen up" speeches. Quaid, meanwhile...bless that man. I'm tempted to say that he gives his best performance here since his magnificent turn in Far from Heaven, making Lawrence's unmitigated meanness really bite while letting us in on the fact that he isn't mean for the sake of it, but only because he is an exceptionally sorrowful man, and an intemperate personality is the only way he knows to let that sorrow out. Quaid's performance is the only thing that keeps the film from tipping too far into flat-out misanthropy in the beginning, when it seems like the film might otherwise just be an exercise in unpleasantness.

It's not enough to make the film click, however. Smart People is something less than the sum of its parts, and while I had a good enough time, I'm not really certain that I know why. There's a lot of hollow clanking where this film ought to have a brain, and there are too many better examples of mostly the same movie to really embrace the warmed-over indieness of this one.