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Thread: The Nicholson Phenomenon

  1. #16
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    Feb 2003
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    I think you're seeing a political aspect to the movie which I'm not convinced by. The staple of all comedy - even something as genial and inoffensive as My Big Fat Greek Wedding - is exaggeration and caricature, and yeah, the characters frequently do end up looking "repulsive and foolish". But to assume that this necessarily means Payne is making a point about the idiocy of all middle-Americans doesn't make much sense. It's like saying Fawlty Towers is John Cleese's attack on residents of Torquay, or Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons is a vessel for the writers' distrust of well-educated childrens' entertainers. Just because the movie is set in a particular place doesn't mean it is intended to be representative of that place, just as David Lynch had to point out to critics of Blue Velvet that just because Dorothy was a woman doesn't mean she was an avatar of every woman.
    Perfume V - he tries, bless him.

  2. #17
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    I begin to feel like I've said about as much as I can about this demoralizing film. Not its director's best work, it will be remembered more for the performance of the powerful Jack Nicholson than for its confused plot and mean social (not political) portraiture: the whole interest is in deciding if Jack has sunk the movie or saved it. I am sure that this overrated movie has had such a long ride entirely through the odd contrast between Nicholson and his role. Rarely has miscasting generated such extraordinary interest: it is a tribute to Nicholson's sheer voltage as an actor. As I said in my own review, Payne Anderson has now moved away from his native Nebraska. His motives are mixed in About Schmidt: he trashes while he sentimentalizes. If he is cruel, sometimes perhaps it is to be kind, but the bad taste lingers on beyond the dubious sentimentality. Comedy can be gentle or it can be cruel. It is important to note the tone of it. Is My Big Fat Greek Wedding "genial and inoffensive"? Not everyone finds it that way. But it certainly is positive.

    For more about the tone and the director's attitude toward his milieu, I'll allow some reviewers to speak for me (these can all be found on www.mrqe.com):

    Peter Keogh, Boston Phoenix:
    "Of course, as in all of this director’s work, that irony is still pretty broad. Isn’t it enough to give Randall a mullet — must he have prematurely thinning hair and a Fu Manchu moustache and sell waterbeds, too? The women characters verge on misogynistic stereotype, as they might in any film that includes in its cast both Hope Davis and Kathy Bates. In the original Louis Begley novel, Schmidt was an urbane, white-shoe New York City lawyer whose intelligence and self-awareness flattered the reader’s sympathy. Here he’s is a schmuck…"

    Charles Taylor, Salon:
    For all the combinations of tone and style that movies have indulged in, I can't think of one that has attempted smug poignancy (or is it poignant smugness?). That's the tone of "About Schmidt…Like far too much contemporary American movie comedy, "About Schmidt" is all about flattering the audience. A drab visual insult, James Glennon's cinematography is about reducing the Midwest to strip malls and ugly downtowns, overbright superstores and anonymous tracts of suburbs. Here, we are being told, is the land of dullness and convention and routine, where everything has a deadening sameness. Even before you see them, you anticipate the twin La-Z-Boy loungers in the TV room, the floral-pattern bedroom wallpaper, the Sears family portrait on a young executive's desk, the heavy mahogany paneling in the town's "classy" restaurant.

    Peter Rainier, New York:
    Payne grew up in Nebraska, but on the basis of his films, it would be incorrect to say he feels great affection for his roots; he wants us to know he’s not a rube like the people he puts on display. A director like Jonathan Demme, in Melvin and Howard, could celebrate small-time rural American malcontents and dreamers without feeling the need to cartoonize them. It’s the difference between artistry and knowingness. About Schmidt doesn’t bring us deeply into the lives of its people because it’s too busy trying to feel superior to them.

  3. #18
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    I didn't feel that the characters in About Schmidt were "cartoonized". People like that EXIST. I've met some up here in Alberta-"redneck country" as we're called..
    Mullets (which are sickening) are abundant in the MILLIONS. That's a scarier fact than anything on "fear factor". Characters like Kathy Bates' are all-too common in North America. Nothing in About Schmidt to me was a parody, a spin, a pun, or insult to these types of people. I could go so far as to say Payne gave them the ultimate compliment: an opportunity to see themselves as they REALLY are. The question is will they continue to be abhorrently unappealing? my guess is yes.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  4. #19
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    Here is that original IMDb User review of mine (also here):

    Jack's back.

    `About Schmidt' reminds one why `American Beauty' seemed uplifting: it made us see an ordinary man's boring life as something he could toy with and perhaps escape from. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicolson) makes feeble efforts to escape – and once he sets sail in the Winnebago, he can always jump into it and drive off again. But he has no inner wildness to discover. Inside he has perhaps wellsprings of fear, sadness, and rage, but he's neither willing nor able to express them. To call Schmidt's fate in the movie an `existential crisis,' as some critics have done, is a bit of a stretch.

    `American Beauty' was Kevin Spacey's finest hour, if not his most challenging role. Opinions vary on Jack Nicolson's performance in `About Schmidt.' Is this the work of a great actor, or the wreck of one, or was he always a great obnoxious scene-stealing ham who's lucked into some terrific roles -- but here simply winks at the audience from behind the befuddled Babbitt he is playing? In `About Schmidt,' Nicolson surely has moments in which each of these facets appears: we see a great actor, and a burnt out one; a ham, and a celebrity hiding in a role that would be beneath him if it didn't rise to such sublimely nerve-wracking and embarrassing levels of tragicomedy. For the most part the hero of Alexander Payne's movie is simply a thinly disguised but magisterially reposeful Jack Nicolson who in scene after scene holds back or, as A. Lane memorably writes, `swinishly lolls.'

    And this is what the role calls for. One can debate the performance, but it's pretty clear that the cinematic Schmidt is largely a cipher. Inside every Schmidt, it appears, there is a Jack Nicolson violently gesturing to be let out -- but here exercising moments of cunning repression. For an actor as flamboyant as Nicolson to play with great restraint is in itself a form of flamboyance.

    Schmidt doesn't wish to face anything, and he doesn't. He tries to escape from almost every moment that calls for active presence. First it's by slipping off for a drink at a bar when his retirement party is going on. Then it's by jumping into the Winnebago when living alone gets rocky. He has shown himself pathetically unable to cope after his wife dies. He has turned against her and his best friend for a short flirtation between them long ago. And he has run away from it all. But in the end he only escapes into drugs (the Percodan Kathy Bates' character gives him for his twisted neck) and fantasies of a paternal relationship with a small African boy he buys foster care for. This is how he buys off his `existential crisis': he sends off monthly checks to Africa for $22. You could better call this not `existential crisis' but middle class white guilt. The voiceovers of Schmidt's letters to the boy are the only semblance of a sensibility that the movie offers, and its only resolution is validation of this boy's existence via a letter from a nun in the final scene. There is much sadness in this, but no enlightenment.

    `About Schmidt' indeed is a rather distressing (but nonetheless surefooted) example of what could be called Todd Solandz lite, which was found much more amusingly displayed in `Pumpkin' and `The Good Girl' earlier this year. This time the level of caricature is kept low enough and pervasive enough to be hardly ever funny. The movie offers a quarter of an hour of genuine amusement when Schmidt arrives at his daughter's future mother-in-law's house. Kathy Bates provides some relief from the emptiness of Schmidt's respectable, actuarial existence (he was in insurance in the director's own native Omaha). She swears; she yells at her ex. Her house has a dated hippy charm and the way her New Age sexuality threatens Schmidt is blissful because she also threatens for a moment to take over the screen with her warm presence. The bad taste of the décor is enormously welcome here after the Fifties colonial neutrality of Schmidt's residence; the dinner featuring the garrulous ex, rude Roberta, and airhead son Randall is a hoot. As Randall the handsome but ill fated Dermot Mulroney (he once seemed destined to become a matinee idol) comes supplied with a balding pate, a ridiculous set of whiskers, a long ponytail, and a job selling waterbeds – a pretty heavy load for an actor who once squired Julia Roberts. `About Schmidt' quickly descends into mild slapstick with Schmidt's injury in the waterbed and doped-out behavior on Percodan. His speech at the wedding dinner teases us with expectations of a hostile outburst, but he ends by saying only the most conventional things.

    This movie will get more attention than `Pumpkin' or `The Good Girl' because of Jack Nicolson's presence: Solandz lite will inch closer to mainstream. And audiences will get a few big laughs -- Jack can create heavy irony with just a raised eyebrow -- but they will not get many. This is the saddest movie of the year, and the sadness isn't just from views of joyless marriage, helpless retirement, and death, but from a steady satiric vision of Middle America that is restrained yet deeply cruel. Anderson Payne has delivered a heavy wallop to the rebel in us. He himself, it is said, has moved away from Omaha and gone to live in Hollywood.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-11-2018 at 10:09 PM.

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