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From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus


 

 

From the Archives:

About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Bolstered by rousing receptions at prestigious film festivals, critical kudos from leading reviewers, widespread predictions of Oscar nods and loads of studio marketing behind it, the momentum attending About Schmidt surpasses anything Alexander Payne saw for his previous features’ openings.

Where Citizen Ruth and Election were accorded the kind of lukewarm studio backing (from Miramax and Paramount/MTV Films, respectively) that idiosyncratic movies get when “the suits” don’t fully endorse or understand them, Schmidt is getting the type of red carpet treatment from New Line Cinema execs that signals they see a potential winner, read — moneymaker, here. And why not?

The film, making its Nebraska premiere December 10 at the new Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (formerly the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater) in downtown Lincoln, appears to have everything going for it heading into Hollywood’s big ticket winter season, when prestige pictures are positioned at the cineplex for box-office leverage and Academy consideration.

The timing of Schmidt’s release seems right. There’s the snob appeal that comes from boffo Cannes and New York Film Festival screenings of the film this past spring and summer. There’s the raves it received from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other name critics for major media outlets. There’s also serious Oscar talk for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated turn as dour Omaha Everyman Warren Schmidt and for Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s sardonic take on middle American mores.

Then there’s the priceless mojo Nicholson’s mystique brings to the Nebraska-made project.

Of course, none of this guarantees Schmidt will do any business, especially in light of the fact Payne’s films have so far fared better in home-market release, where they have time to be discovered and appreciated, than in theaters. That his films appeal to a discriminating audience is logical given his wry, sagacious work, which is really in the realm of social commentary.

Film critic David Denby called Payne and Taylor “perhaps the only true social satirists now working in American movies.” But satire can be a hard pill for filmgoers to swallow. They may feel the sting hits too close to home or they may prefer something lighter to go with their concessions.

According to Dan Ladely, director of the Ross Media Arts Center, Schmidt is “a little bit of a departure from Alexander’s two previous films, which were known for their kind of biting satire. This film is a little bit more nostalgic.” While perhaps gentler, it is, like the others, a painfully honest and ironic examination of how good people lose their way and court despair even amidst the so-called Good Life.

In today’s spoon-fed movie culture, bleak is a hard sell unless accompanied by big action set pieces, and the only thing passing for action in Schmidt is Nicholson’s comic struggle atop a water bed. That scene closes a sequence in which the tight-assed, buttoned-down Schmidt is disgusted by the outrageous new family he  inherits via his daughter’s impending wedding.

The son-in-law’s mother, Roberta, is, as deliciously played by Kathy Bates, a brazen woman whom, Payne said, “is the type of person that will say anything to anyone.” At one point she tries seducing Schmidt in a hot tub by “telling him about how sexual she is and how she had her first orgasm in ballet class at age six,” said Payne, delighted with offending every propriety Schmidt holds dear. “Oh, it’s so fun to torture your characters.”

In this scene, as in much of the film, Nicholson’s performance rests more on his facial-physical reactions than words. Indeed, instead of explosions, verbal or otherwise, moviegoers get the implosion that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, a retired and widowed Woodmen of the World Life Insurance actuarial, undergoes.

Severed from the twin tethers of job and wife that defined him and held his orderly life together, he begins questioning everything about his existence, including the choices he made. He lets himself go.

The state of his disillusion is captured in the film’s ad campaign in which Schmidt appears as a shell-shocked, disheveled man shadowed by a dark cloud overhead in an otherwise clear blue sky.

In the throes of this mid-life crisis, he sets off, in a huge, unwieldy motor home that is an apt expression of his desperate inadequacy, on an existential road trip across Nebraska. His destination is Denver, where he heads ostensibly to heal his wounded relationship with his daughter and to save her, as he sees it, from the mistake she is about to make in marrying a frivolous man. Along the way, he conveys his troubles to an odd assortment of people he turns to or rails against in a kind of unfolding nervous breakdown. Unable to express his real feelings to those closest to him, he instead pours out his soul, in writing (and in voice-over), to an African orphan he sponsors, Ndugu, who can’t possibly understand his dilemma.

Regarding Nicholson’s portrayal of a man in crisis, Dan Ladely calls it “probably one of the most subdued performances he’s ever given and maybe one of his best. I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It’s a role where he really stretched himself, and I think probably a lot of the credit for that could be given to Alexander, because Alexander is a director who works well with actors.  He gets a lot out of them.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt

Alexander Payne
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