Get ready to takes notes on what makes smart people, according to the movie "Smart People." A widowed English professor (Dennis Quaid) and the remnants of his family mention famous authors. They correct people's grammar, talking through their noses, pointedly pushed up in the air. They play Scrabble, obviously. You may get the point even before the movie starts that the title is ironic, that these are pompous, too-smart-for-their-own-good people who will have a lot of learning to do during the next two hours. But the repeatedly mundane and clichéd characterizations only make a ticket-buyer wonder who the filmmakers think the stupid people are.
Set amid the working-class hills of Pittsburgh, the film follows the travails of Carnegie Mellon University professor Lawrence Wetherhold, who shuffles through his daily routine of rolling his eyes at students, fellow faculty and family members alike, leaving a trail of hurt feelings in his wake. A mishap leaves him in the care of one Janet Hartigan, M.D. (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who consigns the professor to six months without driving, leaving him to depend on his unreliable stepbrother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) for rides, because his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), is busy studying for her college entrance exams, and his son, William (David Denman), hates him.
Church comes off best as the Chuck character, goateed and lethargic, intended to be the laid-back, Zen center of the movie, bemused at the failings of the uptight, acrimonious Wetherholds. Modifying his louche bachelor from "Sideways" into a wizened slacker referee, he delivers the best lines, as when he tells the professor's SAT-obsessing, Young Republican daughter, "You're a monster" with perfect comic timing.
The rest of the characters are a mixed bag, often either flimsily rendered, such as college-aged William, who surprisingly gets a poem published in the New Yorker, or too familiar, such as Page's cranky high-schooler and Parker's romantically challenged 30-something. The biggest problem in "Smart People," however, is Quaid, who spends his entire performance under the notion that acting smart means acting like you have a severely stuffed-up nose. "Smart People" has a fair share of chuckles and tender moments, but in the end these aren't smart people or pompous people who get their comeuppance. These are movie people. (R) 95 min. S