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About Payne

A Director's Take On Life and Hollywood

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 16, 2002; Page C01

HOLLYWOOD -- Esconced deep in a wooden deck chair as night falls over the 100-year-old avocado tree in his backyard, Alexander Payne is getting giddy.

Maybe it's the wine. Maybe it's his impending wedding, mere weeks and about a million details away. Maybe it's the effect of talking for three days straight about his upcoming movie, "About Schmidt." The writer-director was less than impressed by the cumulative quality of entertainment journalists.

Alexander Payne in Cannes with Jack Nicholson, who has gotten some of his best notices in years for "About Schmidt." (File Photo/ Michel Euler -- AP)

" 'What's it like to work with Jaaack?' " Payne echoes his tormentors, sick of the question. " 'How'd you shoot Kathy Bates in the nuuude?' "

So shallow. So Hollywood. Alex, hey: Welcome to the neighborhood.

"Jack," of course, is Jack Nicholson, the star of "About Schmidt," Payne's wry meditation on retirement, alienation and the meaning of life in Middle America. The plus-size Bates does in fact have a nude scene -- in a hot tub! -- with Nicholson, one of the film's many droll and unexpected moments.

As shown in his earlier movies, "Citizen Ruth" and "Election" (both little seen by audiences, but warmly received by critics), the writer-director has a knack for astute observation of middle-class American experience, from high school politics to abortion battles to senior citizenhood.

In the new film, which opens Friday in Washington, Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a 66-year-old just-retired insurance salesman, staring into the abyss of idle years ahead and many unfulfilled years already past.

This movie is about "loneliness, contempt, anger, regret," says Payne. (This from a comedy; what would his dramas look like?) The 41-year-old filmmaker is lean and sprightly, with lively dark eyes and long, black hair feathered '70s-style around his narrow face. He sips a little cabernet while dangling a plastic-thonged foot over one knee.

"I never said, 'I'm going to make a movie about Middle America.' I never thought that. . . . I never say 'I'm going to make a satire.' I never use the word satire with respect to my own stuff. I never said, 'I'm going to make a comment on America.' I'm just going to make a movie -- and that's what comes out."

Nonetheless, many critics have been mightily impressed. "What makes this exquisitely observed slice of American screen realism transcend itself is finally its moral sensibility," wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "The movie's quest to discover how one ordinary person can make more of a difference turns out to be as serious as its title character's."

Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum observed that the film "makes art out of a great big well-meaning decent workaday swath of Americans at our most average -- and human." And on Saturday, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named "About Schmidt" the best movie of the year.

Quite an accomplishment, considering that not much happens in "About Schmidt." As the film opens, Schmidt is retiring from a lifetime at the Woodmen of the World Insurance Co. in Omaha (Payne's home town). When his wife suddenly dies, Schmidt is at a loss over what to do with himself; he goes on a road trip, headed vaguely toward the wedding of his daughter (Hope Davis) in Denver. She's marrying a waterbed salesman Schmidt can't stand (Dermot Mulroney).

Much of the film's humor, as well as its pathos, comes from seeing the legendary Nicholson -- he of the impetuous rages and mad-dog grins -- reduced to a puffy nonentity with a comb-over, unable to connect with other human beings or his own emotions.

Uncharacteristically, Schmidt offers an examination of his life through long letters he writes to a little African boy he has decided to sponsor with monthly donations. "Dear Ndugu," he writes, two words that in Nicholson's mouth are enough to inspire a laugh, while the confessions that follow are moving and heartfelt.

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