The Movie Club

Layers of Irony

Happy New Year! Now that we’ve gotten past our you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine phase (what a world this is, in which everyone has his or her custom-made 10-best list), it’s time to tear into this stuff. Being hopelessly outnumbered on Adaptation, I’m going to choose another battle. But Sarah, I’m not sure it’s possible for you to “read the ending differently” than I did, since I wrote in my Slate review that I “didn’t have a clue” what the ending meant. Initially I interpreted it as a cynical slap at Hollywood, then Tony suggested it was meant, on a human level, to be affirmative. There are just too many layers of irony here for my limited intellect. I guess I finally see it as a kind of weird hybrid, not unlike some strange species of orchid, that you can take in different ways depending on the light and your mood. But I didn’t much like it—or the movie. As an admirer of Charlie Kaufman (I actually preferred his Human Nature script), I was disappointed that, in effect, he blew the adaptation. But as our friend Stephanie Zacharek (another rare dissenter on this one) has said, the script is one of the great ass-savings in motion-picture history.

I also feel a little sad playing the killjoy on About Schmidt, since I think Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor are terrific, and I respect what they set out to do in this movie. It strikes me, Sarah, that you, like John Powers and some other critics I respect, concede the charge of smugness in a couple of individual shots but find that the movie adds up to something much larger. But I think that the complacency runs a little deeper. If the milieu is superbly handled, the mistake is in making the characters seem too much in sync with it. I know that you’re less enthusiastic than I am about Lovely & Amazing, but compare Dermot Mulroney in that to Dermot Mulroney in About Schmidt. In the former, he begins as a blowhard yet reveals, in the movie’s key scene, an unexpected sort of decency. He does what is asked of him but is deeply ambivalent and guilty, and he’s still trying to sort it all out when the movie leaves him. He’s alive and capable of surprising us. In About Schmidt, whatever you know of him in his first minute onscreen is exactly what you know of him in his last minute onscreen. There’s no tension between how Schmidt sees him and how he actually is, and hence there’s no real drama. The same is true of every supporting character in the movie: They’re all grotesquely limited. I haven’t read Louis Begley’s (apparently much different) novel, but if Payne and Taylor transplanted his protagonist’s attitude they made a mistake. A first-person narrator (especially a blinkered one) can be bitterly conclusive, but a movie or play owes us at least a hint of something larger. Even in the context of Payne’s own work, this is a lapse. My favorite moment in Election is when Tracy Flick, stunned and enraged to find that the jock has entered the race for student-council president (and that McAllister put him up to it), nonetheless seizes his petition and scrawls her name on it. What a marvelous, complicated moment! There is nothing in About Schmidt even remotely that rich.

Tony: I gave John C. Reilly unwanted career advice myself in my The Hours review (hey, none of youse guys put it on your list! are we agreed on that one?); I’d also add that when Liam Neeson & Co. walked past him in Gangs of New York I wish they could have “looked right through him/ walked right by him/ and never kneeeeeew he was there.” He’s a tad overexposed. (I’m not sure most people would regard him as a heartthrob, but he had such a wonderful hangdog neediness in Magnolia; he was irresistible.)

Anyway, the answer to your discourse on men and marriage is that virtually all the male protagonists in the films you cited have crushing Daddy issues: either with their own dads, their surrogate dads, or their kids. And a lot of the good women this year were in comas, literally and metaphorically.