Next on our list of Guys Who Looked Like Dorks 10-15 Years Ago But Turned Out to Be Really Cool: that galoot from Wings and Ned and Stacey.
Sure, Thomas Haden Church was in plenty of TV and movies between those and his hilarious role in Sideways -- a character that, like Church himself, looks dimwitted but comes off deceptively sharp -- but if you're in George of the Jungle 2 and you aren't George, I don't think it's going to leave much of a mark on the culture, no matter how charming your ape butler may be.
So how come a man so talented was relegated to such third-rate stuff for so long? Pretty obvious if you think about it: Church is a superhero and all that crime-fighting left him no time for the good movies. I'm just conjecturing here, but I'm going to go ahead and guess his modus operandi was to get hired as a henchman, stand around with his brow furrowed until his supervillain boss mistakes him for a ruggedly handsome footstool, kicks back, and gives away all his evil plans, at which point Church punches everyone's lights out and twists the Death Ray's barrel around so when it goes off it shoots itself.
On second thought, that's definitely what happened. Unfortunately, it would take a similar act of heroism to make Smart People more than occasionally funny.
Dennis Quaid is a gruff man, more at home with the literature he teaches at Carnegie Mellon than the people in his life, including overachieving daughter Ellen Page and his goofus of a brother Church. Perennially underemployed, Church shows up needing a place to stay, but isn't allowed to move in until an accident leaves Quaid legally unable to drive and in need of someone to shuttle him around town.
Church and Page start to hit it off: she'll be off to college soon, and he thinks she needs to have a little fun before she continues her goal-oriented life. As he's busy corrupting her, Quaid, who hasn't really dated since the death of his wife, starts to see Sarah Jessica Parker, the doctor he met when he was hospitalized.
Thing is, though, he's so wrapped up in his own head he has a hard time letting her into it. Usually the movieland answer to intellectuals and their personal problems is for them to realize how grossly unimportant the life of the mind is compared to "real" life. And they're completely right to think that way. All life's problems can be solved by playing Frisbee with your dog in the park, or by smiling back at a baby no matter how trollish and creepy that baby might be.
Smart People doesn't fall into that trap. It takes its characters' intellectual pursuits seriously. Always good to see that. As for the rest of their personalities, it doesn't do so hot.
Like when Church disappears midway through -- why? I mean, yes, we're later told why, but that doesn't mean it makes any sense. Quaid gets dumped on for ignoring son Ashton Holmes, yet the script neglects Holmes even worse, only dragging him out whenever it's convenient to make a point.
As for Page, her Young Republican, quasi-Objectivist character never comes off as more than a fuzzy photocopy of a young Ayn Rand. We know she's smart because she keeps calling other people stupid, but as for what about her would make Church want to hang out with her, that, too, is a question which must be left to the philosophers.
Without a command of his characters and their problems, director Noam Murro doesn't have a command of his story. Quaid actually has enough material to give a solid, interesting performance, and Church can't help but be funny (though we see so much of his ass it should get third billing), but around two-thirds of the way through my brain ran up the white flag: subplots stalled, then reappeared without warning; people got upset with each other for no clear reason, then ran off and sulked about it; OK, guys, let's pack it in with a dramatic reconciliation before the goodwill runs out entirely.
Smart People accomplishes that much, at least. Its obvious sympathy for Quaid earns it another cheer. But Quaid's the only one who really comes to life. As for the others, all the acting talent in the galaxy doesn't do much good when you're working with characters that feel more like approximations than like real people.