The Movie Club

Payne’s “Where’s Kilroy?’ Relationship to Films

Dear Tony, David, and Roger,

You’re quite right about the wobbling tone in About Schmidt, Tony and David. But I still like the film for its overambitious variety of ambitions. Thank goodness Payne’s view of the world is less reliable for instance, than director Todd Solondz’s tiresomely creepy Storytelling, whose sendup of PC came awfully late to that dance, and whose every character is either cruel or nauseatingly pathetic. I interviewed Payne earlier this fall, and he told me he hoped critics would take on, maybe argue with but really take on, some of the ideas in the movie outside of Nicholson’s performance. You might take this as another example of his smugness, but I think there are really interesting ideas in this film—about both moviemaking and the naive and insular righteousness of comfortable Americans. What about the beautifully woven-in music, a model of craft that takes a simple melodic anthem (I can still hum it) into variations that evoke Brahms, heartland Copland, and raucous gypsy dance? (Again with the music: What a year for good scores, what with Elmer Bernstein’s great melodrama homage in Far From Heaven and John Williams’ mercifully schmaltz-free white-boy jazz in Catch Me If You Can.) What about the exquisite precision with which Payne observes Omaha, Neb.? The ruthless accuracy of the settings, each room whispering eloquently of a social class, a mindset, and the unstoppable passage of time? And why should the good people of the Midwest be spared tough comic inspection, especially when we so often accept far more vulgar, imprecise parodies of Brooklyn goodfellas or snooty East Coast WASPs? Isn’t the protectiveness its own kind of condescension?

Yes, some of the characters are grotesque. So are the characters in, I don’t know, Gogol. And yes, there are shifts in tone, one scene bearing witness to the pain inflicted on a daughter by a shut-down father, the next showing a guy flopping funnily on a waterbed. But if Payne punctuates his lucid realism with judgmental anger, interrupts the anger to express sympathy, and steps back a beat later to give us a well-executed gag, I don’t mind. His relationship to the material seems the appropriately tortured one of a comic artist to his family.

Speaking of which, here’s an odd coincidence: Did you know that Payne is of Greek extraction and that in his boyhood his father owned a Greek restaurant in Omaha? Ring a bell with another movie this year? Strange how one guy could take advantage of the opportunity to study strangers and think about human nature. Whereas Nia Vardalos figured out how to work up a narcissistic fantasy that abandons its satiric intentions after the first 10 funny minutes and becomes the story of a how a girl who once longed to live a richer, more autonomous life hooks up with a tall, handsome sexual servant and learns to enjoy the prison of her family’s surveillance. Seconding your defense of John C. Reilly, Tony, and your observation about how movies are foregrounding women’s sexual needs over men’s, whatever his deficiencies I’d choose Reilly in a heartbeat over John Corbett’s Ian in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The poor man is disturbingly vacant, an object. A baby machine, if ever there was one. 

David, I just got your morning missive and can only begin to reply to its many good points. About Adaptation I may not have expressed myself clearly, but I’ll have to leave that for tomorrow. As for About Schmidt, I’m with you about Dermot Mulroney’s son-in-law, but not on Schmidt’s wife, who at first looks like a cartoon but turns out to have been sadly unknown to him, and not at all on Hope Davis’ beautifully observed daughter, whose flashes of anger when he buys a cheap coffin for her mother, and of despair after his pathetic wedding speech, tell a long story of disappointment. About Lovely & Amazing, I have mixed feelings. Catherine Keener is a jittery goddess, hilarious here as usual, but the brittleness of the part starts to grate. The naked Emily Mortimer scene is strong but not, to me, as shatteringly powerful as all that. Perhaps I felt let down, too, since I adored director Nicole Holofcener’s first film, Walking and Talking, the shrewdest depiction of female best-friendship I know of. After that film’s roundness, the characters here seem thinly written, notional. And are they representative women? Nutcases? I didn’t buy the former possibility; the likelihood of the latter made me wonder, for all that the film does well, why I should spend time in their nerve-wracked company.

Roger, I have heard so many wonderful things about City of God and feel terrible about not having seen ityet, but hope and expect if it’s this good to be discussing it on next year’s list. In another rather odd coincidence, Alexander Payne went to Brazil and contributed advice on the script. But I think that’s the extent of his “Where’s Kilroy?” relationship to films of the moment.

Till soon,