Carnegie Mellon English Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a widowed parent of his alienated college son, James (Ashton Holmes), overachieving high school daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), and sibling to his adopted ne'er-do-well brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) that he cannot evade enough. The professor is bitter, arrogant, self-absorbed and uninterested in his students; this does not help him when he parks illegally on campus, his car is impounded and does not pay his fine before getting to the college impound lot watched by a flunked former student.
Lawrence suffers a trauma-induced seizure after falling from the top of a fence in an attempt to retrieve his briefcase from inside his impounded car. In the emergency room, he is treated by Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), a former student he does not remember. Lawrence has to figure out a way to get about without being able to operate his car; Chuck is without a place to sleep and a job so Vanessa sets things up for what he characterizes as a "win/win" situation.
Lawrence goes to the hospital for a follow-up, where another doctor tells him Janet had been his student. He meets Janet again outside the hospital as he is leaving and, since Chuck has failed to show up, she offers to take him home. When they arrive, he asks Janet to join him for a "face-to-face conversation." She agrees, fulfilling her old student crush on the professor. Vanessa is not pleased, confronting Janet about Lawrence's fragility. At dinner, Lawrence monopolizes the conversation and Janet walks out. Lawrence fakes a visit to the emergency room to see Janet again and the two reconcile for a second date. They get back to Janet's place where they have sex, but while spending the night, Janet is turned off by Lawrence's neediness and worries that he is, in fact, still too distraught by his wife's death. To get rid of him, she feigns being called in by the hospital and does not return any of his subsequent calls. On another night, in the midst of a contentious family Christmas dinner at the Wetherholds', Janet arrives unannounced with a cake.
After Chuck gets Vanessa drunk to celebrate her early acceptance into Stanford University, she makes a pass at him, which he rejects. He then moves in part-time with Lawrence's son, James (Ashton Holmes), in his college dormitory.
James' girlfriend, Missy (Camille Mana), who is one of his father's students, tells Lawrence that James has had a poem accepted by The New Yorker. In contrast, Lawrence's latest academic tome has been universally rejected. After Vanessa suggests a new title, You Can't Read!, the book is sold to Penguin Group, a large non-academic publisher in New York. To Lawrence's dismay, however, the book is largely re-worked and edited by the publisher and only vaguely resembles his original work. Janet accompanies Lawrence on a trip to New York to meet with the publisher, where she learns she is pregnant with his child. Finding him preoccupied by his book's publishing and an ongoing campaign to become chairman of the English Department, Janet is again upset by Lawrence's self-absorption and breaks up with him without telling him the news.
Back in Pittsburgh, Lawrence is confronted by both James and Chuck, who both point to his apparent lack of interest in his children's lives. Encouraged by Chuck, Lawrence goes to the hospital to reconcile with Janet, who reveals her pregnancy. He has meanwhile dropped his bid to become department head and has become a more involved parent and professor.
During the end credits, Lawrence and Janet cradle twin babies: one boy and one girl.Dennis Quaid as Lawrence Wetherhold
Sarah Jessica Parker as Janet Hartigan
Thomas Haden Church as Chuck Wetherhold
Ellen Page as Vanessa Wetherhold
Ashton Holmes as James Wetherhold
Christine Lahti as Nancy
Camille Mana as Missy Chin
David Denman as Dr. William Strouse
Scott A Martin as Weller
Don Wadsworth as Hadley
Richard John Walters as Parking Lot Attendant
The film was originally set at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but filming an independent film in that city was deemed too difficult. Filming at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh occurred in November and December 2006. The house used as that of the Wetherholds is in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Friendship. The shooting schedule was compressed by Hollywood standards, at 29 days. According to the director, Noam Murro, in the audio commentary of the DVD, filming was actually completed before that of Juno. The photographs of the cast holding twin babies in the credits appear to be a nod to actor Dennis Quaid's twins born in November 2007, and his subsequent awareness campaign over medical drug dosage errors.
The film received mixed reviews. As of March 10, 2009, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 49% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 134 reviews. Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 57 out of 100, based on 33 reviews. The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times all gave the film more positive reviews. In its opening weekend, the film grossed an estimated $4.2 million in 1,106 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking #7 at the box office. The first week gross was estimated at $5.7 million. As of July 29, 2008, the movie has received $9,511,289 in the United States box office while receiving $1,069,335 overseas making a worldwide gross of $11,839,695.
The soundtrack from Smart People was released on April 8, 2008 and contained music by Nuno Bettencourt.
- "This Is Your Life" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "Q.P.D." by Nuno Bettencourt
- "Stitch" by Baby Animals
- "Early Checkout" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "Need I Say More" by Cherone
- "Rush You" by Baby Animals
- "Lotus" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "Flow" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "You Still Need Me" by Baby Animals
- "School Girl Crush" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "If Only" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "Hamburger In Bed" by Nuno Bettencourt
- "Pursuit of Happiness" by Nuno Bettencourt