In one of Smart People's many funny (yet real) scenes, several beers have loosened the inhibitions and tongue of bright, highly motivated teen Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page). As she staggers out of the bathroom, she pauses to ask a bottle-blonde, denim-clad woman "How's it feel to be stupid?" The woman snaps back: "How's it feel to eat lunch alone every day?" Vanessa's drunk enough to be honest: "It f***in' sucks." And that scene, in a nutshell, is what Smart People is about -- how it's one thing to be bright and aware and clever and perceptive, but it also sucks to eat lunch alone. Vanessa's dad Lawrence (Dennis Quaid) is a burly, bearded professor in the English department at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University - sluggish and surly and sleepwalking through his days. It's established -- carefully and well -- that Lawrence lost his wife not that long ago. His son James (Ashton Holmes) is attending Carnegie; his daughter Vanessa busies herself as Lawrence's right hand woman -- preparing meals, thinking of new titles for his book, advising him on office politics. This has two advantages for Vanessa; she gets to help her dad with his problems, and it keeps her too busy to think about her own.

The Wetherholds don't have much of a life, but at least it has some order to it -- order that's disrupted by the arrival of Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), Lawrence's adopted brother. Chuck is a slow-motion wreck of a man, a financial and professional failure, but he knows things his brainy brother and niece don't. Chuck wants to crash with Lawrence for a while, but Lawrence isn't very interested in that; when Lawrence has a seizure that means his driving license is revoked for six months, Chuck leaps in that window of opportunity headfirst. Chuck, by his very presence, destroys the status quo at the Wetherhold home. What we come to grasp is that maybe that status quo needs destruction.