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Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

One of the things that has made Stephen King’s career so notable is the way he’s defined a fictional corner of Maine as his very own, his work serving as a sort of supernatural history of one particular corner of the world. Knowing the background of Derry and Castle Rock and the surrounding cities really informs each of the stories, allows King a sort of shorthand. Woody Allen has stakes a similar claim on New York, a New York that seems to have no minorities, no crime or poverty to speak of, in which well-off psuedo-intellectuals have complicated emotional issues. When you slip into one of Woody’s films, there’s an expectation of what world we’re about to visit. It’s fascinating to see someone claim a piece of landscape as their own as an artist, and when you see it happening, it can be exhilarating as you realize someone is defining their voice, making a run at greatness.

In theaters this Wednesday, you’ll see the names Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor III on the writing credits for JURASSIC PARK III. Don’t hold it against them. John Sayles frequently takes studio rewrite assignments because it buys him the freedom to do whatever he wants on smaller, independent films. If you’re trying to figure out who these two writers are, you have to consider their Omaha films, the pictures that Payne has directed, because that’s the world that seems to be so particularly theirs.

CITIZEN RUTH is a film I like a lot, and there was something ballsy about shooting such a blistering satire in Omaha, the heartland. ELECTION was one of the small surprises that made 1999 such a consistently exciting time to be watching films, a reminder of the power of great comedy writing and the command of Matthew Broderick. When I heard that they were going to be working with Jack Nicholson, I thought it was one of those perfect fits. No one is more witheringly sarcastic than Nicholson, more attuned to how to kill with a comment. I was expecting some sort of black and bilious masterwork.

ABOUT SCHMIDT is something else entirely, though. It’s something deeper and sadder than their prior work, and if Nicholson is at the peak of his considerable form in the film, it could be classic look at aging and compromise and failed expectations. The script is filled with the same cutting wit we’ve come to expect from their earlier work, but in pursuit of something else, a portrait of a man reaching a certain point in his life and realizing that the life he’s built isn’t one he wants or even recognizes anymore. WARREN SCHMIDT is 66, at the end of a lifetime spent in the service of Mutual of Omaha. The film opens with the last two minutes of his career, as he sits at a desk, waiting for the clock to make those last two trips around the dial. 5:00 comes, Warren stands and walks to the door, taking that one last look around, then walking off screen into a raised cheer of "For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow."

Watching Warren try and settle into his retired life is uncomfortable, to say the least. He’s miserable once cut free of his routine, and the first thing that strikes him about his new life is how much he doesn’t like his wife Helen. At least when he was working, he had excuses not to be around, but now that it’s just the two of them, everything she does drives him crazy. Everything she says annoys him. He’s not much better about dealing with his adult daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is preparing for her marriage to a guy named Randall who Warren doesn’t like much.

Warren and Helen buy an RV Bounder, something Warren wants no part of. Helen is planning a trip, and it’s obvious she’s planning more than just this one trip. She’s got Warren’s whole retirement planned out. It’s equally obvious that Schmidt doesn’t want to do the things she has planned. It’s almost like he isn’t able to give voice to any of the thoughts he has or any of the growing fears he has. That is, he’s unable to voice them until he sees a television commercial. You know the one. Sally Struthers crying. African kids with distended bellies and flies buzzing around them, those hungry eyes pleading with the camera. Thirty-seven cents a day. Warren sees the commercial, and it’s like the first time he’s ever seen it. He calls for more information, and when an envelope arrives to introduce him to his new child, Warren reads it like a man in the desert would drink water. He memorizes the few details offered, then starts to write his first letter to Ngudu Umbu, from Tanzania. It’s like something inside Warren comes to life, because the letters he writes over the course of the film are what really distinguish his voice and the voice of the film. The letters are funny, but they’re more than that, too. Taylor and Payne use montage to make some devastating points about Schmidt’s life, and the reality of that life versus what he writes to Ngudu. It’s like he can’t quite lie, but can’t tell the truth, either, not even to himself. There’s also an almost willful ignorance in the letters. Warren seems to have no idea whatsoever what Ngudu’s life might be like.

As much as Warren feels like his life has already been turned upside down, he doesn’t come genuinely unglued until Helen dies unexpectedly. This leads to Warren discovering something about her that he never suspected, so when Jeannie and Randall come to stay with him briefly, he is shattered. He begs Jeannie to stay with him, to take care of him, and he doesn’t disguise the fact that he doesn’t like Randall at all. Jeannie puts up with it as long as she can, then goes back to Denver with Randall. Warren ends up on his own, alone, falling apart. Literally, he has nothing to keep him together. He doesn’t know how to make food for himself. He doesn’t know the first thing about cleaning his house. Within weeks, he’s let it decline to an alarming level.

Trying to snap out of oncoming depression, Warren decides to drive the RV to Denver to be with Jeannie as she prepares for the wedding. This is even after she begs him not to come, saying he’d just be in the way. The trip is revelatory, but not in the ways he expects. At one point, not quite sure why, he stops by his old college, his alma mater, and visits his old fraternity. This is a great sequence, smartly written, and it should be one of those Nicholson moments we treasure as we watch Warren, horrified by the clean new face of Greek life, attend a mixer where he gets roaring drunk and makes a complete ass of himself. He is depressed even further than before when he learns that his former roommate is now a multi-millionaire who has buildings on campus named after him, especially when they don’t even get Schmidt’s name right at dinner. He also has a painful, piercing encounter with another couple he meets at an RV campground one night, culminating in a truly horrible moment where he makes an awkward pass when left alone with the wife.

Eventually, demoralized and unsure where he fits in the world, Warren ends up at the home of ROBERTA HERTZEL (Kathy Bates), the mother of Randall. It’s a horrorshow, nothing like he expected or is used to, and after the first night’s dinner, he literally begs Jeannie to not marry Randall. And it’s not about happiness or love or anything else. It’s about Warren’s own fears and failures, and it’s a selfish, little moment. When his efforts to stop the marriage don’t work, Warren finds himself locked into a week of hellish preparation with Roberta practically stalking him. Even if this sounds dry, it’s not. Taylor and Payne are remarkable at shining a light into the souls of these characters, and they’ve crafted something special on the page here. I’ve heard the film won’t be ready for release this year, so mark this up as another of the films I’m counting on to make 2002 a banner year at the movies.

Towards the end of the film, Warren writes a final letter to Ngubu, and I don’t really consider it a spoiler to share it with you. Like I said... this isn’t a film about plot so much as character and reaction and emotion. There’s just something about the mix of absurdity and heartbreak in the letter that sums up what I love about this script:

"We’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and the most you can hope for is make some kind of difference. But what kind of a difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? I have accomplished nothing. Even my trip to Denver was insignificant compared to the journeys others have taken, to the hardships they endured, the bravery they showed.

"When I was out in Denver I tried to tell Jeannie that I thought she was making a big mistake, but it just didn’t work. And now she’s married to that guy, that imbecile. I’m a coward. And I’m a failure. There’s no getting around it.

Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in twenty years, maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. Once I am dead, and everyone who ever knew me dies, too, it will be as thought I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone. My life has added up to nothing. Hope things are fine with you. Warren Schmidt."

There’s still surprises in store for both Warren and the audience between that letter and the script’s end, and if they manage to nail the script’s final pages onscreen with the same power they did in the script, we are in for a work of real transcendence when ABOUT SCHMIDT is finally released, a beautiful summation of what has made Nicholson such an enduring icon and what makes Alexander Payne such a strong emerging voice as a director.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • July 18, 2001, 10:59 p.m. CST

    sounds like it has a heart, something 'election' was lacking...

    by tommy5tone

    i realise that payne isn't out to make things 'easy' for the audience, but like todd solondz, he seems to take a cold delight in rubbing your face in the pettiness and frailty of his characters. if i must have a morality play, let it be from neil labute - his movies make my skin crawl but in a good way, if you know i mean (and i'm not sure i even know what i mean, you know?).

  • July 19, 2001, 1:44 a.m. CST

    I can't let you get away with that!

    by Captain Katanga

    Election didn't have a heart??? You need to watch it again, it has more heart than 90 percent of films out there...

  • July 19, 2001, 9:24 a.m. CST


    by MaxCalifornia.

    Sounds like some serious Oscar bait for Jack. As good as it gets on downers...?

  • July 19, 2001, 9:48 a.m. CST

    Citizen Ruth and crappy TV

    by WFCall

    A couple of things: Hopefully the title of this will get changed. It is just way to similar to that horrible looking upcoming series from NBC called 'Inside Scwartz'. I enjoyed election tremendously, but something about Citizen Ruth bothers me still. Every review I read of it, every interview with the cast and crew I saw or read, and every little blurb I read all said that it let both sides of the abortion issue have it equally. All that crap still bothers me. Payne made a PRO abortion film when he made CR...there are no two ways about it. Election was a fine film, but CR was insufferable trash. Payne is much better when he decides to leave his own personal politics out and just make movies. I hope I don't hear a monologue from Jack on how unfair tax cuts are to the poor.

  • July 19, 2001, 10:26 a.m. CST

    Damn, I thought this was an article about beer, but about Ruth a

    by otis von zipper

    Citizen Ruth was not a movie I loved immensly, but someone suggested it was PRO abortion. Gotta disagree. Yes, the movie doesn't really explore both sides of the issue, but I would say that it actually doesn't approah the issue at all. The actual issue of having an abortion. Rather, the film explores the radical groups on either side and criticizes them both. If the film is PRO abortion, I didn't see it, and I can't think of how it was expressed unless you think the film just simply expressed a preference for individual choice and didn't suggest that abortion was wrong, which again I would disagree, because I felt some scenes did express that idea. I've written about that much more than I thought I would, so I just wanted to say Election had a great deal of heart, specifically within the character of Tammy, the sister. That film was a real treat, and I anxiouly await Payne's next film.

  • July 19, 2001, 11:05 a.m. CST

    Jack's Back.

    by rabid_republican

    Nicholson has always been a pleasure to watch, not surprisingly, in the role of the dissatisfied, unhappy never-do-wells he popularized in the 70's. Particularly strong in "Five Easy Pieces" and "Carnal Knowledge", his characters are decidely flawed, human. Nicholson can make one sympathetic to some not so savory individuals and I look forward to seeing him do so with "Schimdt".

  • July 19, 2001, 11:09 a.m. CST

    WFCALL-a director leave out his own politics?

    by WolffmanJack

    That's where the best films come from. Jesus, look at Kubrick! Did he leave out his own political and socail views. I think you've got it all wrong buddy. That's my two cents anyway.

  • July 19, 2001, 11:59 a.m. CST

    payne in the...

    by jeff bailey

    I am a huge fan of Election. I think it was a brilliant film. I personally think it is the best film ever made about high school. It's more real then any thing John Hughes ever coughed up. Ruth I didn't think was quite as entertaining or amusing but it certainly had Payne's unique sensibilities. He has a flair for the banal and an eye for the human condition in all it's pettiness. I think he captured it in Election in a way guys like LaBute and Solondoz (who has his moments) don't, in that they seem to set up their characters flaws and appetites and then punish them for it. Payne just seems to stick to letting them be sort of ordinary and fumbling. Not bad people, just sort of stupid and petty. I for one can't wait to see this. But I do have to admit...43 million??? How much was Jack's salary??

  • July 19, 2001, 2:17 p.m. CST

    Sounds like a fucking masterpiece. And whatever jackass studio s

    by heywood jablomie

    ....ought to be taken out and shot. What the fuck is with you people? It reminds me of the idiots who cackle at the genuine emotion in AI. Why aren't you cackling at SWORDFISH or TOMB RAIDER or THE MUMMY RETURNS, you cretins? Oh, because I guess mediocrity is acceptable (particularly to a mediocre mind). But when an artist really puts his mind and heart out there...embarrassing! Too revealing, too vulnerable! Unacceptable! God, it pisses me off. A glass should be raised to Payne in honor of this movie even if it turns out to suck ass. Why? Because he has the one item you saw almost none of this summer: BALLS. P.S.: Go see Ghost World...if it's not too dark and depressing and fiscally irresponsible for you! (In which case--WHOA! Hey! How bout those raptors?)

  • July 19, 2001, 2:36 p.m. CST

    I've also read the script, and...

    by AlienBoy

    it's sad, funny, heartbreaking, bittersweet, and the ending is very satisfying (as opposed to almost every other film this summer, including JP3). I REALLY hope Payne successfully translates the story from page to screen and blows the fish out of the water next year when this comes out.

  • July 19, 2001, 8:49 p.m. CST

    Dear Vic Franco: Bollocks, say I

    by heywood jablomie

    I am not an "angry teenager" and I work in the same "arena" you do...with a single difference. I have not so absorbed the Industry-fed jive that permeates nearly all coverage of movies, from the trades all the way to "highbrow" movie criticism, to the point where I would lash out at MAGNOLIA for being made at $40 million. Guess what? PTA is one of the best filmmakers working today, and if his ideas aren't worth $40 mil, then everyone should close up their shop. If the only "fiscally responsible" movies are focus-grouped, test-marketed, blue-chip investments like the same shitty tentpole movies you claim to despise, then whoopee for irresponsibility, I say. The bottom line is this: many good semi-cheap movies could be made for the same price that the majors are now making large bad ones...which, by the way, everyone, even the popcorn-chomping 13-year-olds, despise. Is there not a soul who will pipe up for art for art's sake? A recent article in the LA Times lambasted critics for being "aging" and "out of touch" because SOME of them praised AI. The fact that everyone in the world hasn't gone hog-wild and walked like a grinning zombie toward, say, LEGALLY BLONDE or PEARL HARBOR or whatever the fuck is a sign of being one of those Scorsese-Ashby-and-Altman- lovin' hippie ne'er-do-wells, in that hack's opinion. And by the way: Kevin Smith may be "fiscally responsible." He also could not direct his way out of a rickety outhouse made from popsicle sticks.

  • July 20, 2001, 11:33 a.m. CST

    fiscal responsibilty, blah, blah, blah

    by peltzer

    Lost in this entire debate is the fact that "About Schmidt" cost nowhere near this $40 million figure that's suddenly being tossed about. The movie was actually budgeted at "just north of $30 million," and eventually completed production under-budget and ahead of schedule. So now the question becomes: it irresponsible to spend about $30 million on a comedy-drama starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, and Kathy Bates, co-written and directed by Alexander Payne in his first film since being nominated for an Oscar?

  • July 20, 2001, 4:50 p.m. CST

    $30 million may be too much for a serious adult drama...

    by peltzer

    But I don't consider "About Schmidt" to be a serious adult drama. Upon reading the script, I think it's a very funny adult comedy with serious undertones. I mean, even some of those sequences that Moriarty alludes to are laugh-out-loud hilarious. And if you've read the script, you already know that one of Kathy Bates' big scenes will ellicit screams of laughter and/or horror (do you know which scene I'm talking about?). "The Pledge" was bleak and depressing (though, in my opinion, an excellent film), and Warner Brothers seemed to intentionally kill it by dumping it in theaters in mid-January. "Magnolia" (one of my favorite movies, and screw fiscal responsibility, my life is better because it was made) is a three-hour plus melodrama with plot elements that many audiences found over-the-top and pretentious. In terms of size/genre/tone, I don't think of movies like that when looking for a parallel to "About Schmidt." Actually, the better comparison would be "Wonder Boys," which had similar themes and a similar quirky sense of humor. Yes, it bombed (and cost more than "About Schmidt"), but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have been made at that budget and with those stars. I think "Wonder Boys" could've performed so much better if it had a better marketing campaign and a more appropriate initial release date (instead of its late-Janurary release). For me, though, it comes down to this: The filmmakers delivered a wonderful movie, and I'll watch my DVD of "Wonder Boys" a dozen times before watching a frame of "Tomb Raider" again. I'm not going to shed any tears if Paramount lost money on "Wonder Boys" because of their crappy release strategy. Nearly five years ago, I was certain that "As Good As It Gets" was going to bomb. It was severely over-budget (over $65 million) with months of reshoots, and the script I read was long, bloated, and filled with subject matter and characters that audiences should have avoided like the plague. And who would've predicted that a dark comedy movie that ended with the hero being killed and telling audience members that they'd all be dead someday, too, would gross $130 million domestic? But "American Beauty" did that and more (a killer marketing campaign sure helped). Fact is, there's really no way to predict how these things will go.

  • July 21, 2001, 7:25 p.m. CST

    Jesus God, does anyone think about quality?

    by heywood jablomie

    Saying "thirty million is too much for a serious adult drama." So a serious movie, not made for adolescents...has to be made at the level of a Lifetime movie? Or--let's be generous--at the level of I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER? I thought the point of Ain't-It-Cool-News was that it was supposed to made up of film LOVERS, not armchair quarterbacks of New Line's third-quarter performance. Ask yourself--is it God or Mammon you serve?