If I had to name one actor of the last 30 years who should have been a much bigger star — who, with a different roll of the dice, might have been as big as Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks — it would be Dennis Quaid. In the ’80s, in movies like The Right Stuff, Innerspace, and The Big Easy, he had an effortless rakish charm, and one of the greatest smiles ever. It was a guy-can’t-help-it grin — a face-splitting beam of pleasure that invited the audience into complicity with the delight he took in it. A down-home Texas mensch, with the tiniest hint of a devil inside, Quaid was made for the chick-flick era. Somehow, though, it passed him by. (It was inaugurated, instead, by Billy Crystal and Richard Gere.)
Even without megastardom, of course, Quaid has done just fine. In 2002, he initiated a comeback when he took on the wholesome-hero role of the over-the-hill pitcher in The Rookie, and he has given a handful of searing performances; he marinated — spectacularly — in a martini of self-loathing as the closeted husband in Far From Heaven. What makes the Quaid of the ’80s — the boyish matinee idol who never quite went supernova — so relevant to the Quaid of today is that in his best current roles, he plays men defined by failure, by the shadow of unfulfilled expectation.
In Smart People, a small, sharp, and pleasingly literate comedy, he’s Lawrence Wetherhold, a burnt-out English professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been drifting ever since his wife died. Lawrence is a crusty and miserable pedant, the kind of academic snob-cynic who uses his knowledge against his students; to him, they’re so shallow he might as well make them feel like crap. The campus is dotted with former members of his seminars whom he can’t recall, because he barely registered them in the first place. Quaid wears a beard that’s like a billboard of scruffy depression, and he has thick, unkempt hair that looks as if it gets washed about once a week. Lawrence truly loves literature — especially Victorian novels — but he is also its prisoner. Nothing in the modern world can measure up. He has written a book no publisher likes, some sort of glum meta-critical harangue entitled You Can’t Read. The fun of Smart People, which was written by Mark Jude Poirier and directed by Noam Murro, is seeing Quaid bite, with darkly funny and misanthropic gusto, into the acrid soul of a man whose life has curdled.
In essence, it’s a Philip Seymour Hoffman role (a cousin, in fact, to Hoffman’s academic basket case in The Savages), but even when Quaid plays a man who wears his gloom like a suit of poison quills, his warmth doesn’t disappear. You don’t just get the gray storm clouds; you get a hint of the sun they’re covering up. Lawrence has two kids — James (Ashton Holmes), a student at Carnegie Mellon, and Vanessa, a frighteningly tart-tongued 17-year-old who’s so wise beyond her years, such a cool and precocious and ironic chip off the old block, that she could only be played by Ellen Page. The actress shot this movie before Juno, but it already feels like the sequel, and that turns out to be a mixed blessing: Her timing is just as ace (she gets many laughs), but there are, if anything, fewer cracks in her facade here. It’s time she took on a gentler role. Lawrence also has an adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), who’s a flaky and annoying parasite — and therefore the perfect catalyst for Lawrence’s renewal. Their relationship is a clear gloss on the one in Sideways, yet Poirier’s script is full of nicely offhand slap-down banter, and Church projects something beyond the lines — he makes the very act of screwing up a sign of grace.
Smart People, unlike Sideways or The Savages, has a plot that’s a little too rote. Trying to bust into a parking lot, Lawrence suffers a minor seizure and lands in the hospital, and since he isn’t allowed to get behind the wheel of a car until he’s fully recovered, the ne’er-do-well Chuck moves into his cozy-creaky Pittsburgh home and becomes Lawrence’s (unreliable) designated driver. Lawrence also starts to date the doctor who admitted him — a former student played with crisp, sexy vitality by Sarah Jessica Parker. Most of these story arcs are functional, rather than urgent, and I do wish the movie had more scenes set inside the trenches of academia. Yet the actors in Smart People are such lively, offbeat company that you’re happy to spend time with them. The movie is too savvy to let Lawrence shake off his curmudgeonly vibe. He doesn’t ”grow,” he just emerges, and that’s enough. B