Following the path blazed by Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale—grow a beard, act literary and mopey—Dennis Quaid anchors Smart People as... well, one of the titular smart people, I guess. Quaid's Lawrence Wetherhold is every bit as pompous as his name would suggest: A lit professor at Carnegie Mellon, Lawrence's surly, deadpan demeanor splits into a half-smile only when Dickens' Bleak House is mentioned. (In real life, Bleak House is mentioned once every 77 years; for dramatic purposes here, it comes up every 10 minutes.)
After long days spent alienating colleagues, getting his book rejected by publishers, and ignoring students, Lawrence finds little comfort in his family: He's got a dead wife, an intense Young Republican daughter (a pre-Juno Ellen Page), a vaguely forgettable son (Ashton Holmes), and a stoner brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). Enter Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker, trying her hardest not to be Carrie Bradshaw), a hot physician who was once one of Lawrence's students. "We could use a little antivenom in the snakepit," Chuck cracks when Janet shows up for dinner at the Wetherhold residence, and soon enough, everybody's learning a little bit about themselves, and coming to appreciate life just a little bit more.
Smart People's cast is solid and understated, with strong turns from Quaid, Church, and Page; in painting a portrait of an unhappy, too-clever family in suburban Pittsburgh, writer/director Noam Murro hits several choice moments of sweet, sharp, and melancholy humor. The problems kick in during the third act, though: As Murro guides his subjects, one by one, toward happiness, he loses sight of their funny, acerbic, and believable characterizations, softening up their wry, weary dialogue and patching over their witty discontent with too-easy solutions. (I'm pretty sure this is the first time The New Yorker has served as a deus ex machina.) By the time Smart People wraps up, its once-strong characters teeter precariously on the border of Hallmark sappiness, their earlier, pricklier charms swept under the rug just in time for the end credits.