Yesterday I took a day off (first in a while for me), and I had a chance to see the movie Smart People starring
Randy Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Ellen Page.
The movie is about a rather odd literature professor, Lawrence Wetherhold, (Quaid) who is exhausted by the difficulties of academic life. His oft-obnoxious daughter (Page) obsesses over getting into college and feels superior to others due to her intelligence — as is clearly evidenced by her high SAT scores. Wetherhold is a widower, and since the death of his wife he has been supported by his daughter. When he falls trying to steal his car out of the impound lot — he was parking illegally — his ER physician (Parker) turns out to be one of his former students, who had a crush on him. Because of his head injury his deadbeat brother (played by Thomas Haden Church) is forced to move in with them and drive him around.
The story circulates around Wetherhold’s rocky romantic relationship with his doctor and his confrontation with professional failure in trying to publish a highly academic book and get the position of department chair. I’ll let you see the movie to see what happens.
I have to say I did enjoy this movie. Page is as always dead-on. Further, this movie is almost a documentary of certain aspects of academic life. I haven’t sat on a faculty search committee but those who have assure me that this movie accurately captures them in all their sordid childishness. In spite of the moments when the phrase “watching porcupines make love” springs to mind, the romantic scenes before Quaid and Parker are sweet but not sentimental. Church also has some money lines that made me laugh out loud.
That being said, I have been thinking hard about the portrayal of academics and “smart people” in this movie, and I don’t think it is being entirely fair.
It is true that I have had professors exactly like Wetherhold: angry, worn down by the effort of inflicting education and decency on unwilling and uninspired students, disgusted by their peers and the general mediocrity they see around them. As a consequence, he is dismissive to his students to a degree that borders on abuse. He gives uninspired lectures and then turns his nose up when people don’t understand. Wetherhold is emblematic of the abyss into which academics dare not look: the realization that no one is ever going to understand your subject as well as you do; the realization that you may be too weird for the world outside academia; the realization that academia is often to paraphrase Bart Simpson “a hideous bitch goddess.”
Likewise, Ellen Page’s character — Vanessa Wetherhold — is an almost perfect caricature of me at 17. She has no friends, she is too damn smart for her own good, and she is horrible at hiding her contempt for anyone who doesn’t spend their day studying SAT words. The logical consequence of such behavior is unhappiness, and she is predictably lonely and miserable. She is counting the days until she can go to college (which is in another moment of dejavu for me is Stanford). College for her has an almost heavenly quality because there she will finally surrounded by her intellectual peers.
In short, I get these characters. I know people like this. I have been like this (in degrees).
On the other hand, being caricatures these characters do not tell the whole story. I have had professors like Wetherhold, but the majority of my professors are there due to a profound intellectual curiosity and excitement about their subject. They are there because they want to know the answer, and they want you to help you know it too. Few of my professors are gifted diplomat, but that doesn’t make them caustic either. Most of the time they are just pleasantly eccentric. They know that they aren’t normal, but they don’t really care. They picked academia because they like living by their own standards. Very few of my professors — even those who have withstood all the bad things academia can do to you — are as angry and superior as Wetherhold. Wetherhold is also understandably upset. He lost his wife and now is similarly lost. He temporarily loses faith in the system. However, this really isn’t that uncommon. All of us lose hope from time to time, but — academia being a place of eternal optimism — it usually doesn’t last.
The story is not over for the Vanessa character either. I can tell you from personal experience that college rapidly disabuses you of any residual superiority. College is not easy — not for anyone. In spite of the portrayals of natural genius in movies, I have never met anyone who got through college without a very large amount of labor. This labor has an important egalitarian function. It shows you that you are not as special as you thought. College also tends to explode simplistic assumptions. “World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural.” I went to school understanding the world in exceedingly simplistic terms. I discovered it was a good deal muddier than I had expected. Vanessa may arrive at school a total snot — I certainly did — but that is unlikely to survive the forceful maturation that most people endure in college. If you want to have friends, you don’t continue to act like a snot.
My primary objection to this movie is that the characters are partly caricatures. Don’t get me wrong. The story is compelling, and it does have tender moments. The ending — which I won’t spoil — is appropriately mixed. It is just that the heroic arc of these characters is not one of human beings overcoming adversity and learning from the experience. It is an arc of caricatures eventually surrendering to complexity.
I enjoyed it, but I would have liked it more if the characters had more depth.
Did anyone else see the movie and have dejavu moments? I would love to hear about them.