Even without Thomas Haden Church's familiar presence as a grubby ne'er-do-well, Smart People would still strongly recall Alexander Payne's Sideways, with its story of an unloveable, acerbic, pretentious middle-aged clot tentatively pursuing redemption through the love of a good woman. But even more so than in Sideways, there's a question of whether he actually deserves either redemption or love. Dennis Quaid's arrogant professor character isn't just the cinematic stereotype of a mildly off-putting geek who needs a wardrobe change and some dancing lessons to become a suave hero; he's an obnoxious, self-absorbed ass, the kind of guy who deliberately parks his beat-up old Saab across two parking spots, and who covers his bad behavior with sloppy lies, then gets angry at anyone who isn't fooled. He could stand in for Jeff Daniels' similarly toxic snob in The Squid And The Whale, if only he were a little smarter and a little better-dressed.
So why should audiences care whether this undeserving schlub finds happiness? Good question, and one first-time screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier and first-time director Noam Murro never fully answer. But they have the sense to make their black "comedy" about several other things. Smart People gets a welcome boost from Juno star Ellen Page as Quaid's daughter. Once again, she's playing perky and snarky, though her prissy, overcontrolling, judgmental young-Republican teen is almost as poisonous as Quaid. Church, as Quaid's slovenly, loser-ish adopted brother, actually comes across as the most pleasant of the three, even as he gets Page high and drunk by way of offering her a bonding experience.
Smart People seems to be maneuvering for a slot among the Little Miss Sunshines of the world, with its alternating doses of quirk and mild sentiment. To its detriment, those areas have suddenly become well-trod ground, and it brings nothing fantastically new to the table. But in its favor, it never piles on either one too heavily; it's about small realizations and baby steps, not big, chord-swelling, crowd-pleasing triumphs. Like Squid and Sideways, it's a discomfiting character study in which compelling, convincing acting and lively dialogue help mitigate the feeling that none of these people are worth spending time with. But it starts at such a level of abrasiveness that it really has nowhere to go but up. It doesn't fall to Todd Solondz levels of misery, but you can see them from here.