The Alcoholic Horndog Tenured Professor Stereotype on Film: Smart People
At first glance, “Smart People” seems like a knockoff of “Wonder Boys.” A dowdy professor finds love and has to deal with a precocious young adult along the way. Only in this case, “Smart People” swaps Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand and Tobey McGuire for Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page. Alas, despite Ellen Page’s dazzling array of winter sweaters, “Smart People” takes the film law that “professor” is shorthand for “self-absorbed” and pushes it to the limit.
Meet the Professor: Lawrence Wetherhold, English Professor at Carnegie Mellon. (Is it a law that all movies about sad professors have to be set in Pittsburgh?)
Hot Pepper Rating: Low. They manage to make Dennis Quaid look like a schlep.
Likelihood of Having an Undergrad Piece on the Side: Pretty high if he’s willing to see former students as promising sexual partners.
Boozing and Drugging Quotient: Although Wetherhold is seen chugging from a bottle of wine, his chief vice is narcissism.
Mental Condition: Since this is a dramedy, his mental condition is fairly serious, and it is implied that much of his behavior stems from grief over the death of his wife. At least it doesn’t have as much to do with despair over his status or lack thereof on the job.
Financial Fakery: Finances aren’t a huge issue in this movie, but it does stick to the film rule that any character who is a professor must a) have a problem with driving and b) have an old, crappy car. What’s really fake is the idea that a literature professor could sell a book to Penguin, even if it has a combative title like “You can’t read!”
Teaching Talent: This movie should be a lesson to anyone who does not make the effort to learn the names of his or her students, even if the students are annoying snowflakes. Wetherhold and his students are equally disgusted by each other, and he has trouble tracking down a single positive teaching evaluation.
Quotations: 1. One of Wetherhold’s colleagues on the value of student evaluations: “It’s mostly just speculation on my sexuality.”
2. “You never tire of Bleak House!”
3. An editor on Wetherhold’s book: ” I got to the third section where I noticed a certain marketable tone, the surly smarter-than-thou asshole tone. ”
4. Wetherhold: “They’re publishing my book!”
Wetherhold’s poorer and infinitely more interesting brother: “Who the fuck’s gonna read that?”
Conclusion: This movie tries too hard to be quirky and true to the academic life, but the non-professor characters are infinitely more interesting than the professor ones. Nothing really happens. The characters say they’ve grown, but their change isn’t that convincing. Videogum sums up the movie best: “… it definitely helps to define what might be the Worst Genre of All Time, the Being an Upper Middle-Class White Is Hard genre.”