When favorite movie and TV characters reprise their roles in a new cinematic confection, it can be fun - like a visit with old friends. However, a lazy, manipulative element is also evident, because the filmmakers and actors know they don't have to work hard to break new ground.
Such is the case with "Smart People," where Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page treat us to characterizations we've seen and loved in prior productions. Only Dennis Quaid as sour, cynical Victorian literature professor Lawrence Wetherhold is struggling against type, and he may be miscast.
Wetherhold is probably the most hated teacher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, with a history of giving bad grades to students whose names he can't remember. One of his former pupils turns out to be Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), who finds herself caring for his concussion in an emergency room after he failed to retrieve his towed car. Reviving her "Sex and the City" coy, cutesy mannerisms, Parker's physician renews her infatuation with the recently widowed teacher, despite memories of a mediocre grade and his still snobby, elitist intellectual attitude.
Re-hashing his Oscar-nominated "Sideways" role, Church shows up as Lawrence's slacker adoptive brother Chuck, looking to crash and sponge. He encounters the professor's wise-acre, smarty-pants teenage daughter, Vanessa (Page redoing her "Juno" pixie part, also Oscar nominated). She becomes enamored of her non-biological uncle after he introduces her to pot and alcohol. They are both delightful together.
Usually cast in gruff, handsome leading man parts ("The Big Easy," "Yours, Mine and Ours"), Quaid here is stooped, beer-bellied and bearded. He's also decidedly unpleasant. However, leave it to the "Sex and the City" charmer to get him in bed and bring out his humanity. Quaid seems like he's swimming upstream in a role that Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson could perform while unconscious. However, he pulls it off and may even be remembered at Oscar time.
Ashton Holmes ("A History of Violence") portrays James, the professor's neglected poet son in a role that is strangely undeveloped. Writer Mark Jude Poirier and first-time feature director Noam Murro waste an opportunity to make headway with a new character, favoring the easy route with the three already audience-accepted other roles. "Smart People" is an okay comedy that should have leaned more on actor originality. That would have been smarter.