Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. This series of "critic's notes" is chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connect them to the riches of Scarecrow's collection.
The Oscar nominations, announced last Tuesday, reminded us of many things, notably the fact that the people you think should get nominated don't always get nominated. And sometimes they actually do get nominated, but you wouldn't know it because of the discourse. Anyway. Alexander Payne's The Holdovers got five nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Paul Giamatti), and Supporting Actress (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). Payne didn't get nominated for Director, but this set me to thinking about his past work, and the time I interviewed him in Seattle in 2004, with his writing partner Jim Taylor. I also include a review of About Schmidt, just because. Both pieces originally ran in the The Herald. Payne's films are available at Scarecrow, of course.
Interview: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Since Citizen Ruth in 1996, director-writer Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor have quietly carved out their own corner of the American movie landscape. Election, the story of a power-hungry teen played by Reese Witherspoon, and About Schmidt, a comedy about the quiet desperation of a 66-year-old widower (a tour de force for Jack Nicholson), put them at the front of their class.
Payne and Taylor visited the area last week for a publicity tour for Sideways, a brilliant new film about two fortyish friends on a week's trip to the Santa Barbara wine country. Like the two men in the picture, the filmmakers have different styles: Payne was deliberate and somewhat formal, Taylor (who grew up in the Seattle area) more casual. But they were on the same wavelength in the way they thought about movies.
I asked about how they captured the tone of the movie, which is sometimes thoughtful and sad, and sometimes slapstick comedy. Taylor explained that achieving that blend is mostly a matter of instinct, and having an "inner ear" for finding the balance.
It begins with having serious issues at the core of the idea, and then allowing comedy to emerge. "For us," Taylor said, "it's really important to us to have the base there, and the jokes are sort of on top of that. So that if you fall, you have a soft landing."
Payne added, "I'm just thinking about The Kid, and about silent comedians, and the way they mixed pathos and comedy, especially Chaplin. It's hilarious, but then halfway through, it changes when the cop takes the kid away and Chaplin chases them across the rooftops….and the ending of City Lights, too….I don't think what we're doing is any different."
Sideways gives prominent roles to a couple of good actors who have knocked around without really catching on, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen. Payne said that both casting choices were the result of auditions—he had remembered Church from auditions for Election and About Schmidt and thought this might be the role for him. Madsen was proposed by a casting director who showed Payne Madsen's photo and said, "Don't her eyes look like she has experience?" That's what the director was looking for.
I asked about the movie's feel for average places, bars and motels and apartments, and Payne proudly said that not a single set was built for the film. They used real locations in the Santa Ynez Valley outside Santa Barbara, including real wineries and the kooky Danish-style town of Solvang. The Hitching Post restaurant, where many important scenes are set, is an actual place.
"We like the world as it is," said Payne of his approach, decrying the false veneer of so many contemporary films. Taylor added, "It's strange that seeing things the way they are is considered radical."
Taylor said their approach when writing a scene often took the form of asking, "What's the real version of this, as opposed to the movie version?" He pointed to a scene in Sideways in which Paul Giamatti's character must sit in a hospital waiting room, idly flipping through a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine. "It gets a laugh," Taylor said, "but it's also true. You do end up reading a women's magazine in a hospital, because that's what's there." Payne and Taylor have made a nice career out of capturing what's there.
Jack Nicholson has never looked more defeated than he does in About Schmidt. But in a strange way, the actor has never been more heroic.
About Schmidt presents Nicholson as a nonentity. Meet Warren Schmidt, 66 years old, retiring from his job as an actuary. He's worked all his life at the headquarters of Woodmen of the World insurance, located in Omaha, Nebraska. Warren is married to Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years. (The startling sight of Jack Nicholson paired with a woman his own age is one of the film's many coups.) Warren realizes he has absolutely no idea who this mild, slightly bossy old woman living in his house might be.
Their only child, daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), is living in Denver. Much to Warren's exasperation, she is about to marry an inane waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney, in a bold Fu Manchu mustache).
The Schmidts have just purchased a 35-foot motor home. This ungainly vehicle becomes the means of Warren's solo journey for a couple of weeks, as he searches for meaning—or something—in his suddenly empty life.
The film is more of a sustained mood than a story. It's quite different from the last couple of films from the team of director/co-writer Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, Election and Citizen Ruth. Payne's pacing throughout is measured, the humor deadpan. From the opening moments, there's an almost suffocating sense of people not saying what they mean and lives not being lived.
And yet the film is truly funny. Payne and Taylor are almost Kubrick-like in their ear for the idiocy of modern speech—especially of the corporate variety. Warren's eager-beaver replacement is a wind-up doll of grinning nothings. Some scenes make you want to laugh and cry at the same time, like a 10-second throwaway of Warren ordering a Blizzard ("with Reese's Pieces and cookie dough") from a bored clerk at an airless Dairy Queen, with the song "You Sexy Thing" playing softly and absurdly in the background. I think that's one of the saddest moments I've ever seen in a movie.
Punctuating the film are Warren's earnest letters to a 6-year-old African boy he has "adopted" via one of those TV pitches for starving kids. Sending off his monthly check, Warren also includes personal notes about his life, which we hear in voiceover. The salutation, "Dear Ndugu," becomes a regular feature, as soothing as the beginning of a Japanese haiku.
Just when the movie feels a little aimless, Warren arrives in Denver, where the wedding is due. As his future in-laws, Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman add a boost of energy to the picture.
About Schmidt won the L.A. Film Critics awards for best film, screenplay, and actor (Nicholson tied with Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York). It's a remarkable film, deserving of praise, even if it occasionally feels as flat as one of its midwest landscapes.
Nicholson makes it something special. His wrinkles are deep, his baldness is covered by a modest businessman's comb-over. He has invented a way of walking for Schmidt—tiny, careful steps, the gait of a timid man—that tells us a life story. Seeing this lost fellow on the road will conjure up past Nicholsons: here's the guy from Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, grown old and worn out, but still wandering on his American search. As has been the case so often with Nicholson, you're right there with him.
January 26, 2024