Curmudgeon: a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.
If that definition from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary had a helpful illustrative picture next to it, it could easily be Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed fiftysomething professor of Victorian lit at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.
In that picture, he wouldn't be smiling. Sneering is more like it. The dour and arrogant prof adores the English classics—and pretty much loathes everyone and everything else. In the wake of his wife's passing some years before, his soul has shriveled. He's both demanding—of others, not himself—and demeaning toward anyone whose logic, appearance or opinions don't meet his erudite expectations. The title of a book he's trying to get published expresses his angry arrogance with precision: You Can't Read.
All of that makes him a lousy father. Son James, a promising young poet and student at Carnegie Mellon, has severed diplomatic ties with Dad. Daughter Vanessa deals differently with his emotional absence: She's working impossibly hard to construct the perfect life, appropriating and imitating her father's annoying, know-it-all snobbery in the process.
That depressing status quo gets overturned by two events: a seizure-inducing head injury Lawrence sustains and the arrival of his slacker adopted brother, Chuck.
The head injury and subsequent trip to the ER reintroduces him to Dr. Janet Hartigan, a former student who'd had a crush on him years before. As her lingering affection for Lawrence slowly defrosts his heart, Chuck's unorthodox and bohemian approach to life begins to break the emotional logjam that is the Wetherhold household.
At its crusty heart, Smart People is a movie about a very dysfunctional family learning to love and trust again. Lawrence is both tremendously intelligent and deeply broken by the loss of his wife. Both of those conditions affect his relationships, mostly negatively. Chuck, meanwhile, has no pretensions about success in the way his brother defines it. Even though he's been pegged as a "loser," Chuck tells Vanessa, "I like my life." In many ways, he's a very bad influence. But he's cognizant of the ways Vanessa and James are struggling. For example, when a drunken Vanessa tells him, "Everybody hates me," he sagely responds, "If you tell people they're stupid, they'll hate you."
After Lawrence's accident, his doctor restricts him from driving for six months. Vanessa suggests that Chuck should be her dad's "designated driver," an idea he recoils from but eventually accepts. As Chuck drives Lawrence here and there, the brothers' relationship thaws and deepens.
Janet's presence in Lawrence's life also begins to wake up his heart. Slowly, he takes baby steps away from the arrogance and pomposity that have marked his life. He apologizes for being self-centered. And the growth he experiences in that relationship (and with his family) results in an increasingly honest and healthy view of himself.
Vanessa, meanwhile, bravely tries to do the best she can for her family. She takes care of domestic chores such as cooking and doing laundry. And she tells her dad that she took flowers to her mom's grave to mark the anniversary of her passing.
[Spoiler Warning] When Janet confesses to Lawrence that he has gotten her pregnant, he responds by telling her he loves her. Janet says, "We can figure this out. We're smart people." And for once, they are. The pair never mentions abortion as a possible response to the unexpected pregnancy, even though Vanessa perhaps alludes to it when she tells her father, "You have options." The closing credits feature photos of a smiling family holding the resulting twins.
Passing reference is made to someone's "psychic wellbeing."
We witness Lawrence and Janet kissing a couple of times—and in bed together after they've had sex on their second date. At various times she wears only a bra and a bathrobe. Some of her tops reveal cleavage. James kisses his girlfriend at a bar, and later she's in bed making out with him wearing only underwear. Chuck tells his brother, "Fifty dollars on a dinner is grounds for intercourse." Vanessa tells Dad that he's not ready for sex yet because the culture's "socio-sexual mores have shifted."
A drunken Vanessa impulsively plants a kiss on a very startled Chuck. For most of the rest of the movie, tension ensues because she's embarrassed. It's clear she has a crush on her uncle. (She rationalizes it's OK because he's adopted). To his credit, Chuck never pursues or encourages any kind of sexualized relationship. He even starts staying with James several nights a week in an attempt to create some distance (though he makes up a cover story about staying with a new girlfriend).
We see Chuck zipping up his pants after apparently photocopying his anatomy. Twice we see his bare backside when Lawrence opens his door to wake him up.
There are five or six passing references to homosexuality, most of them in a joking context. One allusion refers to a doctor's multiple failed relationships with other men. Another has to do with U.S. vice president Dick Cheney's daughter.
Trying to scale a fence, Lawrence falls hard to the concrete.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters blurt the f-word half-a-dozen times (including two in a sexual context) and the s-word about 10 times. God's name is clearly taken in vain once, Jesus' misused at least once, possibly twice. There are about 10 other vulgarities ("a--," "h---"), as well as one crude reference to the male anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Chuck contributes to the delinquency of both his niece and nephew. In a misguided attempt to get Vanessa to relax, he convinces her to share a marijuana joint with him. He also tells her that her father used to smoke pot. Later, Chuck talks her into going to a bar, where the underage girl gets very drunk. Also under the legal drinking age, James is at the bar too. Later we see Chuck hauling a garbage can full of beer bottles out of James' dorm room.
Lawrence rebukes Chuck for being a middle-aged man going to college beer parties. And he chastises his two children for drinking wine at Christmas dinner. But when it's clear they're not going to pay any heed to his comments, he sarcastically suggests, "Let's all just get drunk."
To deal with their nervousness and fear about their relationship, both Lawrence and Janet are shown drinking several glasses of wine in quick succession. And Janet deals with a sudden bout of anxiety (after having sex with Lawrence) by going to the bathroom and secretively smoking a cigarette.
Other Negative Elements
Before he begins to soften, Lawrence treats people badly. He doesn't remember students' names but pretends he does; he's self-centered, harsh and judgmental; and he doesn't engage well with his children. The fact that neither James nor Vanessa tell their father about good news (a poem being published and early acceptance into Stanford, respectively) is an indicator of how poor their communication is. Further evidence of that is the fact that virtually all the characters in the film lie to one another at some point because of their lack of trust.
Vanessa is more concerned with her SAT preparation than the fact that her father has been hospitalized with a head injury. She also repeatedly tries to sabotage her father's growing relationship with Janet, first by telling Janet that her dad is "fragile" but "predatory," then by giving her a massive helping of food everyone else has been complaining about at Christmas dinner.
Chuck repeatedly forgets to pick Lawrence up when he's tasked with chauffeuring his brother. He sarcastically derides Vanessa's affection for all things politically conservative, describing her participation in Young Republicans to attending "a Hitler youth rally."
Speaking of Republicans, Vanessa convinces her father to submit his name for consideration for head of the English department, even though he's chairing the search committee. She cites Dick Cheney as a positive precedent here, telling her father that's what he did when he was George W. Bush's vice presidential search committee chairman.
In exasperation, Lawrence labels his brother "a giant toddler" and a "scam artist." Janet holds a positive pregnancy test in her hand and swears at the result.
Smart People is a small-budget indie offering that immediately brings to mind two other similar films: Juno and Little Miss Sunshine.
The former comparison owes much to Ellen Page, who acted in this film before her breakthrough turn in the Oscar-nominated Juno. The latter comes into play because once again we're told a story about a world-weary family trying to come to terms with disappointment, anger, loss and frayed relationships.
Never to be confused with a "family film," Smart People is a film that places a high value on family. Like Juno, it also (almost inadvertently) assigns value to life in the womb. When it comes to Chuck's influence on Vanessa and James, though, this is an extraordinarily mixed bag since his means for helping them sometimes go beyond listening and acceptance into unwise and illegal territory.
Interestingly, the film itself doesn't seem to want to glorify Chuck's behavior as much as it wants to present him as a bumbling guy with a good heart. But add in obscene language and second-date sex, and Smart People might still be best described as a warm-hearted film about life and brokenness that, like its characters, doesn't always make the smartest decisions.