Despite what a lot of movies might have you believe, being white is not that hard. Out of all the things that you can be in the world, being white is probably one of the easiest, and being white in America is the absolute tops. It’s great. So many privileges. No one gives you shit. It’s really wonderful.
Don’t misunderstand: being human is hard. There’s death and sadness and regret for EVERYONE, even white people. But if all you have is some death and sadness and regret, you’re still doing better than 99 percent of the world. Because despite those hardships you don’t also have, you know, racism and bombs and genocide and chronic diarrhea. That can be a really hard thing to remember, because pain is relative. The frustration you have that your knock-off Murakami iPhone case showed up two days later in the mail than the shipping confirmation email said it would is genuinely hurtful to you. That bitter emotion is real. But that doesn’t make it not sad and inappropriate when measured against the pain scale of the rest of the world. And it’s actually BECAUSE of failed movies like Smart People that we are reminded of how good we have it.
Smart People is about a grumpy professor, Dennis Quaid, and his family. After Dennis Quaid has a seizure in a campus parking lot–because he is so grumpy that he purposefully parks his car across two spaces and then is so grumpy that he gets mad when the car gets towed–his drivers license is revoked for six months. So his adopted brother, Thomas Haden Church, moves in to help take care of business. Meanwhile, his daughter, played by Juno, is an overworking young republican determined to go to Stanford, and his son is a poet who just sold a poem to the New Yorker. Of course. Not that Dennis Quaid knows any of this because he is so grumpy. Because his wife died. Then he goes on a date with the doctor, Sarah Jessica Parker, but she gets weirded out by his clinginess and also by his need to always sit in the backseat of the car, but then they get back together, but then they break up again, and also she is pregnant. Then Juno hits on Thomas Haden Church and he recognizes that this is inappropriate. Then some other stuff happens. They give the dead mom’s clothes to Goodwill. Whatever.
Smart People is not the worst movie ever made. It’s gently bad and mostly watchable. But its heart is in the wrong place. And it definitely helps to define what might be the Worst Genre of All Time, the Being an Upper Middle-Class White Is Hard genre. At the very least, this genre is offering the Mentally Handicapped Reminding Jaded Adults of the Wonders of Life genre some steep competition.
The main problem is that everyone in the movie needs to shut the fuck up. Try watching this clip and NOT wanting all of the characters to shut the fuck up.
See? Shut up, you guys. This stems in large part from none of the characters being even remotely likable* and exhibiting zero growth over the course of the movie. They begin the movie being depressive misanthropes with their heads buried deep up their own asses, and they end the movie that way. Now I should point out that in theory, this is something I would enjoy. I like the idea of a movie about characters who don’t learn anything and don’t change, because I think that’s very true to life. People rarely learn anything, and they even more rarely change. The problem with the reality of this is that you just end the movie the way you started, wishing everyone would shut the fuck up forever.
And their unlikability comes not from the performances, which are mostly fine–although I don’t know what Dennis Quaid is doing when he slips into that weird effeminate bobble-head whisper mode–but from the writing, which like so many of these “it’s life, jump into life” style movies, trades on lazy cliches and hackneyed emotional signifiers. (The screenwriter’s next movie is called Hardship, Friendship, Courtship, for ugh’s sake.) So Juno is a young republican because she has anti-stem cell research pamphlets in her car. Dennis Quaid is having trouble grieving over his dead wife because he won’t donate her clothes to Good Will. These are acceptable details, but they never build to anything larger. Juno’s young republicanism plays absolutely no role in her character’s motivations or outcome. It’s a toss-off detail. Same with Dennis Quaid’s depression, which is particularly problematic, since it’s the fulcrum on which the whole story supposedly turns.
Case in point: everyone at Carnegie-Mellon has taken one of Dennis Quaid’s English classes, and they all resent him because he’s dismissive and mean towards his students. There’s one despicable scene where he keeps a student waiting outside of his office while he winds his clock ahead so that he won’t have to meet with him. Fucker. This would be an interesting facet of his character if it was a result of his wife’s death, a symbol of his declining mental health. But it’s not. As it turns out, Sarah Jessica Parker took his class, and he was the reason she dropped out of English and became a doctor. (Sure, that’s not a weak-willed, impetuous reaction to getting a C on a paper.) BUT, she also complains that he never paid attention and didn’t recognize her from class. So he was always this way, even when his wonderful amazing wife was alive. And the last shot of the movie, now that he’s got a girlfriend and his kids have decided to love him, is Dennis Quaid still not recognizing another student in class. So he’s just a miserable person who goes around making everyone miserable. The end.
Again, in theory I like the idea of telling inherently miserable people’s stories. It doesn’t all have to be Uncle John’s Big Life Lesson. But in practice it is just so inherently disappointing.
*The one saving grace of this whole thing was Thomas Haden Church as the adopted brother. His character was written by the same screenwriter as all the others, so it was totally cliche. He loves get rich quick schemes! He’s the fun uncle who makes Juno smoke weed! But I give the credit where the credit is due, and Thomas Haden Church actually made me laugh out loud. Granted, it might have been in reaction to how cheesily portentous everyone else was, but I appreciated his levity. Here he is rescuing an otherwise terrible scene from total disaster.
Nicely done, Thomas Haden Church. Your performance, despite your character’s supposed “failure,” seemed to acknowledge the one thing that everyone else in this movie was missing: that white people have it fucking made.