Film Festival Kickoff: Nicholson Plays a Nebbish

The opening-night film of the 40th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center was Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt , from a screenplay by Mr. Payne and Jim Taylor, based ostensibly on the novel by Louis Begley (I’ll have more to say about the movie’s official literary provenance later). First I should note that, having seen all 39 previous opening-night films, I can say About Schmidt is neither the best nor the worst of the choices made over the decades for this festival honor. As a former member of the film-festival selection committee entrusted with picking all the entries, including the kickoff attraction, I recall the agonies of indecision we endured when it came to selecting an opening-night diversion for a largely upscale audience that was not as densely packed with appreciative movie buffs as were the later festival screenings. Some movies seemed too long, some just seemed to sit there with bad Symphony Hall sightlines to the distant screen. Many movies evoked laughter in the wrong places. Indeed, for many, many years the festival was on the cultural defensive for supposedly being too pompous and pretentious, losing sight of the sheer “fun” of moviegoing. Lack of “fun” was Pauline Kael’s favorite reproof to the festival, at least until she seemed to go hysterical while watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris at the festival-and I have to give her credit. She made some outraged festival bigwigs eat their words and drop their threats to fire the late festival director, Richard Roud, for showing such a scandalous work in the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center.

Of course, there are still people who find it outrageous that the festival asks audiences to spend hours and hours looking at movies without any A-list celebrities in the cast. Even after an awful summer of mainstream duds, there is resistance to the idea that some relief may come via the festival from such places as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden and even China and Iran, not to mention the independent American cinema and the Anglophone periphery of Australia, Canada, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland. At some point in the last 40 years, what we once deplored as “Hollywood” is now virtually gone, except as the locus of multimillion-dollar deals for “studios” functioning exclusively as distributors and production-cost risk-spreaders here and abroad.

In this context, Mr. Payne and Mr. Taylor qualify as non-Hollywood auteurs operating in and around their hometown of Omaha, Neb. They are iconoclastic satirists with a pungency seldom if ever encountered in mainstream movies. Their reputation has been consolidated with Citizen Ruth (1996) and its even-handed ridicule of both anti-abortion zealots and the pro-choice camp, and Election (1999) with its buoyant celebration of the lechery of high-school teachers in tandem with the libidinousness of their students, featuring the hilariously negative chemistry of failed moralist educator Matthew Broderick and ruthless teenage go-getter Reese Witherspoon.

Unfortunately, both as satire and as drama, About Schmidt turns out to be a fascinating setback. The movie opens with Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) waiting for the office clock to read 5 o’clock on his last day of work at an insurance company in Omaha. Already the audience is tittering expectantly at the prospect of cobra-smiling Jack showing by his inimitable grimaces how ridiculous it is to be working for something called the Woodman of the World Insurance Company. Yet somehow, as the movies progresses, Mr. Nicholson’s Warren fails to seize opportunity after opportunity of showing how entertainingly superior he can be to every situation; this is not the sneeringly smiling Jack of Five Easy Pieces , Carnal Knowledge , Chinatown , Prizzi’s Honor , and every Lakers and Dodgers home game. As he endures a ghastly company retirement party with fulsome tributes from Gary Nordin (Matt Winston), his replacement at the company, and Ray Nichols (Len Cariou), his supposed best friend, all that Warren can do is sneak off to a quiet bar in the hotel to drink in relative privacy. His wife, Helen (June Squibb), looks unusually old and plain in movie terms, marking Warren as a loser and nebbish.

The next morning, Warren returns to the office to see if he can help his young successor adjust to his new job, and he is politely brushed off for his pains. He returns home to his wife and lies about his humiliating encounter. Not that she seems to care, particularly; like everyone else, she doesn’t take Warren seriously. When, oh when, the audience begins to worry, is the worm going to turn? Warren doesn’t help matters any by being almost completely inarticulate-that is, until, while watching an international-charity commercial, he calls a number, pledges a small monthly sum and begins a one-way correspondence with Ndugu Umbo, a 6-year-old Tanzanian orphan whom he sponsors for $22 a month. He gets some of his first big laughs by complaining to Ndugu about the irritating habits of his wife. He also begins looking at how little he has done with his life, and how little his presence on Earth has affected and influenced other people. Even his treasured only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), has decided to marry a simpleton named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), whom even Warren regards as a loser. It takes one to know one, one supposes.

Then Warren’s life changes dramatically when his wife drops dead in the middle of her housework. Jeannie and her boyfriend come for the funeral, but Jeannie refuses her widowed father’s request to stay on to help him adapt to his new circumstances. Warren lies to Jeannie that her mother was as opposed to her marriage as he is. Jeannie embarrasses him by revealing that her late mother actually helped choose the wedding date. In a few short scenes, we sense that Warren has failed his daughter over the years, as he has failed in his earliest ambitions. The undeterred audience takes every opportunity to laugh at the mostly inoffensive future son-in-law and his whole family. When Randall’s foul-mouthed, divorced mother (Kathy Bates) makes a strong pass at Warren in the garden Jacuzzi, the audience fully shares Warren’s expression of horror.

In the meantime, Warren has discovered among his late wife’s possessions/effects some love letters from his supposed best friend, Ray. He violently confronts his wife’s former lover and flings the letters in his face. He then throws all of his wife’s clothes and other personal possessions out of his house and embarks in a 35-foot motor home on a visit to his daughter in Denver. (He had originally purchased the motor home for his retirement years with his wife.)

Along the way, he makes a clumsy pass in a trailer park at a friendly neighbor’s wife while her husband is away and is thrown out of the trailer for his pains. From this episode, and from his unbridled outrage over his wife’s extramarital affair, we are led to believe that Warren has been a faithful husband throughout his marriage.

Now consider for a moment the Warren Schmidt character in Louis Begley’s novel. First, his name is Albert Schmidt, and he’s a rich, Harvard-educated lawyer who summers in the Hamptons and lives an upscale life in Manhattan. He has cheated on his wife with a French nanny named Corinne, whom his wife has tossed out of the house after discovering tell-tale stains on her bed sheets. There are no letters to Ndugu. The future son-in-law, though not welcomed into the family by Albert-partly because he is Jewish and has induced Jeannie to convert to Judaism, but also because he has become Warren’s replacement at the law firm after being promoted as Warren’s protégé before he began dating Jeannie-is nonetheless hardly the jerk that the son-in-law is in the movie. Mr. Nicholson’s Warren went to Kansas University and is mired in the middle America allegedly despised by East Coast elitists, and he is definitely not shown to be anti-Semitic.

The point is that if a bad old Hollywood filmmaker took as many liberties with a prize-winning novel as Mr. Payne and Mr. Taylor have taken with Mr. Begley’s opus, there would be hell to pay-among the literati, at least. Still, Mr. Payne freely acknowledges in his production-notes interview that his film is actually a fusion of Mr. Begley’s novel and an unsold screenplay of his own entitled The Coward , which he’d written for Universal but could never get made into a movie.

Mr. Nicholson does have some excellent moments, first with the control he displays as an actor (especially when Schmidt attends his daughter’s wedding), and second with his impressive emotional breakdown at the end of the movie. But the central problem remains: Mr. Nicholson is too strong and iconic a personality to convince an audience he isn’t kidding.

Spankorama

Steven Shainberg’s Secretary , from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the story by Mary Gaitskill, deals exuberantly and enchantingly with a subject that would have made the old Hollywood moguls so apoplectic that they would’ve ordered Mr. Shainberg and Ms. Wilson to wash out their mouths with soap and water. In a sustained spasm of political incorrectness, the marvelously gifted and scrumptious Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, a sad-sack ex–mental patient with a history of cutting and then patching up various sectors of her flesh whenever she feels the onset of self-hatred-and judging from the scars on her body, this is a frequent occurrence. After such a morbid introduction for a character, a predictable mainstream movie would treat Lee’s masochistic proclivities as a problem to be treated and cured in a torrent of psychobabble. Fortunately, Mr. Shainberg and Ms. Wilson are made of sterner stuff, as they introduce their kinky Cinderella to a shyly sadistic Prince Charming, played by James Spader, who displays a variety of anguished expressions befitting an old-fashioned boss neutrally named Mr. Grey, in a paralegal office that has not yet acknowledged the advent of the computer.

This technological backwardness fits into Lee’s minimal qualifications for a job after her short stint in a secretarial school. When she misspells a word in a letter, Mr. Grey punishes her, first by circling the mistake with a forceful red pencil. As the mistakes persist, Mr. Grey orders Lee to bend over her desk and proceeds to spank her. Far from feeling brutalized, Lee is enraptured, and begins making mistakes to provoke further spankings. When Mr. Grey finds out Lee’s game, he begins withholding the spankings in true S&M fashion. I don’t know about you, but I found all these outrageously romantic maneuvers both funny and endearing. Ms. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Spader are ably supported by Jeremy Davies as Lee’s sexually clueless suitor; Lesley Ann Warren as her suffocatingly overprotective mother; Stephen McHattie as her drunken, unsupportive father; and Patrick Bauchau as her reassuringly mystical mental adviser, Dr. Twardon. Ms. Gyllenhaal will never get an Oscar from the Academy’s still-prudish voters for this trail-blazing and courageous performance, but she could be well on her way to a much-deserved stardom.

Eight French Babes

François Ozon’s 8 Women , from a screenplay by Mr. Ozon with the collaboration of Marina de Van, freely adapted from a play by Robert Thomas, turns out to be a more charming and winning entertainment than I had been led to expect by most of the advance buzz. Mr. Ozon and French filmmakers generally love their older actresses more than we, in our eternally and infernally youthful country, can ever adequately appreciate. In 8 Women , every actress who is stuck, Agatha Christie–like, in a snowbound chateau with an apparent corpse on the premises has her own motive, song number in the spotlight, and special opportunity to display the range of her charisma. But this is less a mystery melodrama than a delirious salute to such color spectacles as Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running and Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life . Simply to name the eight actresses-Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard-is to indulge in an iconic incantation that has less to do with traditional film criticism than with spiritual speculation on the eloquent intimations of immortality in the ageless cinema of faces.