Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Smart People -- is intelligence enough?

Smart People
is a dramedy about the love life of two smart people. And it asks the question, is high intelligence enough to make it work? If Carnegie Mellon Professor Lawrence Wetherbold (Dennis Quaid) is a true representative of intelligent or smart people, the answer is no. Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.

Widowed and raising two children, James (Ashton Holmes) a student at Carnegie Mellon and Vanessa (the enormously gifted Ellen Page) a high schooler studying for the SATs, Lawrence is a scholar in Victorian literature. But he is also withdrawn and antisocial with no friends on faculty and no love relationships. Yet he does not seem to care.

When he climbs a fence to retrieve his briefcase from his impounded car he falls onto his back he suffers a seizure. He wakes to find himself in the ER. This incident is the catalyst for change. His attending physician, Dr Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), was a former student who had a crush on him, but whose early passion for arts and literature were crushed and destroyed by Wetherhold's scathing criticism of her papers. When she tells him he cannot drive for 6 months due to his condition, both find themself in a quandary. He needs a driver, and she has a forgotten crush rekindled.

Into this mix drops Chuck Weatherhold, the adopted brother who is a perpetual low-level scam-artist and loser. Adopted means he is not genetically related to the other three Weatherholds and so is not a smart person. He is clearly the dumb foil for them to learn from. He needs a place to stay and money, but he can drive and so becomes the designated driver and lesson-teacher.

Thomas Haden Church plays Chuck well, like a "grown-up toddler" who is looking for cheap drugs, drinking and sex. He is easy in every sense of the word. His character is a failed version of Jack, his hedonistic character from Sideways. (Perhaps this is not surprising since Smart People is from the producers of Sideways.) all the characters in Smart People, Chuck is easily the most likable, if perhaps the most depraved. But he is comfortable with his depravity and his dumbness. He is not putting on airs. What you see is what you get with him. In contrast, Lawrence is self-absorbed and narcissistic. He is only focused on his latest book, which has been consistently rejected by one publisher after one another. When he finally goes on a first date with Janet, he spends 45 minutes talking about himself without pausing to let her say a single word. What did she see in him? And she is no cuddle-bunny. She is a man-eater who has poisoned her earlier relationships: a match made in heaven! (Yet the viewer is left asking what she ever saw, or even still sees, in him.) People pictures these two very smart people as so smart and intellectual that they miss the emotional and romantic intelligence or niceties needed to maintain or even begin a relationship. They have no clue. It takes dumb Chuck to show them, and Vanessa, what life and love is all about.

If we can get past the casual sex, under-age drinking and drug-smoking, Smart People has a lesson for us: intelligence is not all there is to life. A high IQ, several degrees and letters behind a name, does not make a person better than one without the diplomas. It may not even make them happy or fulfilled. We all need to learn, and sometimes the smartest, most educated people lack the common sense or common graces that others have, and hence have the most left to learn.

Smart People also has a lesson about role models. Vanessa is driven by the need to get a perfect SAT score. She is a loner, a nerd in her high school, who sits alone at lunch because she lacks friends. In short, she is just like her dad. When confronted about this, she admits he is her role model. She is a chip off the old block. Unintentional though it may be, he has given her an incorrect and poor model to follow. The parent needs to lead the child, but in the right direction and in the right manner. What kind of role model am I as a father giving to my children? What kind of message are we as "smart people" communicating to those around us, who are watching how we live? Smartness, intelligence, is not the only message; it may lead to pride and egotism. Healthy, loving relationships with others is perhaps a better sign of a rounded personality, particularly for Christians who are called to be lovers of God and lovers of people.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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