Nebraska Is Worth Making the Effort

In 1997, 87-year-old Richard Lusk flew from California to Florida to claim an $11 million prize he believed he’d won in a sweepstakes. The day after he returned home empty-handed, he had a stroke. Four months later, he bought a second plane ticket to Florida and stubbornly knocked on the same doors. After all, the letter he’d received screamed: “Richard Lusk, Final Results Are In, and They’re Official: You’re Our Newest $11 Million Winner!” Shrugged Lusk, “I didn’t see how I could be wrong.”

When your eyes are old, it’s hard to read the fine print. Add boredom, gullibility, and desperation to leave some cash to family when you die, and you’re ripe for exploitation. In Alexander Payne’s endearingly gruff Nebraska, ex-auto mechanic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, with a wild, white puff of hair) is the sucker senior citizen. But our sympathies are with his exasperated sons, David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), who must gingerly convince their father that he’s a fool.

Naturally, he thinks they’re morons for not immediately offering to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his winning check. To keep Woody from walking alone — not that wife Kate (June Squibb) would mind being a widow — needier David reluctantly chauffeurs the old crank across three states, past Mount Rushmore (“It’s just a bunch of rocks,” Dad grumbles) and Dad’s hick hometown, while trying and failing to steer the old alcoholic away from bars. Argues Woody, “Beer ain’t drinking.”

Another director would have made Woody’s damnable insistence on trekking 849 miles a comedy. But Nebraska is the antidote to other family charmers about goofballs in matching sweaters. Payne even drains the film of color, shooting Woody’s wishful odyssey in unsentimental black-and-white — the better to show the dirt in the snow and the lines in Dern’s face.

Once Payne, too, dabbled in wish fulfillment — it’s been nine years since Sideways and I’m still cranky that Virginia Madsen settles for Paul Giamatti’s whiny schlub — but his later films are sure-footed and pragmatic. In The Descendants, he shrugged at marriage while making Honolulu look as dingy as the plant aisle at Home Depot. Here, he takes the heartland — a stretch of America that Hollywood flatters as the place where a Reese Witherspoon type can really, you know, find herself — and strips the Norman Rockwell off it like cheap aluminum siding.

On the surface, Nebraska sounds like a saccharine road trip flick, the type that ends in a hug. David wishes it were. Before the two quiet men hit the freeway, he’s embraced the big idea that this million-dollar folly gives Dad a reason to live. He gets it. And then the drive is spent watching David’s own big-hug dreams deflate. Woody couldn’t care less about family bonding. When David asks why he even bothered to marry and spawn two sons, Woody grunts, “I liked to screw, and your mother’s a Catholic, so you figure it out.” Instead, David — and we — learn more about his dad from other people, particularly during a cobbled-together Grant family reunion, a long detour that gives Ross and Kate time to grab a bus and rejoin the plot.

The Grants are hard to love. These terse farm folk don’t believe the world offers anything more beautiful than a decent TV. But we may know them — I’m related to a few myself — and forgive Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson for creating real people who look like clichés, including David’s pig-faced cousins and money-hungry aunts. These bit players are excellent, and Dern is near-guaranteed an Oscar nod, if only by virtue of being openly old. But the loudest laughs come from Squibb’s Kate, who bitterly resents her husband, her in-laws, and anyone else she can blame for wasting her youth. In one cemetery sequence that hoots for awards attention, she merrily dismisses the dead Grants as a bunch of whores, bitches, and drunks before hoisting her skirt over the grave of an ex-boyfriend and yelling, “See what you could have had, Keith, if you hadn’t talked about wheat all the time?”

It’s funny, scene-stealing stuff, but it’s too sour to share the screen with Forte’s subtle turn as the steamrollered son. The former Saturday Night Live star has defiled his share of cemeteries — all hail the scene where he boned Maya Rudolph’s ghost on a tombstone in the criminally under-appreciated MacGruber — but Payne is the first director to trust him with real emotions. The gamble pays off. With his scared eyes and small lips, Forte looks like the resurrection of Buster Keaton — and like Keaton, he plays it simple, waiting for the audience to warm to him when we’re ready.

That Payne trusts us, too, to find the heart in his chilly film feels like a gift as we begin the slog of a holiday season where Hollywood slobberingly begs us to feel. David never does get that hug, but he does get the dignity of learning to love people for who they are, not for who he wishes they’d be, while accepting that they can’t always respond in ways he understands. It’s true for families and it’s true for films. And Nebraska is worth making the effort.


Stacie Passon’s Superb Concussion Is Why We Have a Sundance in the First Place

Sometimes, one film in a festival lineup can help to reveal another in sharper relief. To wit, one of the loveliest entries in Sundance 2013’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, James Ponsoldt’s deeply felt coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now, looked even better after the premiere of The Way Way Back, a deeply insincere coming-of-age comedy from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash–a movie that has so far generated the festival’s biggest sale (to Fox Searchlight, for close to $10 million).

If Faxon and Rash’s names are familiar, it’s because last year they shared the stage on Oscar night with Alexander Payne, collectively winning the Adapted Screenplay award for The Descendants. But Payne made it clear in interviews that Faxon and Rash had written an early draft of the script, little of which survived his rewrite, and now The Way Way Back offers some clues as to what their version of The Descendants might have looked like. Virtually every line in The Way Way Back, which follows a socially awkward teenager (Liam James) over the course of a proverbial life-changing summer, is a cheap punchline; every character a strategically flawed caricature whose skin-deep problems are smoothed away by journey’s end.

Toni Colette and Steve Carell star as our young hero’s mom and potential stepdad, casting that caused The Way Way Back to be heralded as this year’s Little Miss Sunshine even before the first screening. A more relevant point of comparison may be both films’ sneering contempt masquerading as compassion.

There are also two films at Sundance that riff on Luis Buñuel’s classic Belle de Jour, giving us bored housewives who flirt with prostitution as an escape from the mundane. And where one of them, Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, is a tone-deaf catastrophe, the other, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, is a happy surprise.

Passon’s film–her first after a career as a commercial producer–is precisely the kind of discovery you come to Sundance hoping to make: When the opening credits roll, you scarcely recognize a single name in the cast or crew, and by the time the end credits appear, you can’t wait to see what everyone does next. The central figure is Abby (Robin Weigert), an interior designer turned soccer mom who wakes up one day–after suffering a bad bump on the noggin–to the feeling that the spark has gone out of her life, sexually and otherwise. So she goes back to work, renovating a Manhattan loft, and tries paying for sex, first with a low-end Craigslist hooker who skeeves her out, then with a high-end one who suggests Abby consider giving the world’s oldest profession a try. Thus, from pied-à-terre to maison de plaisir.

At this point, I should probably mention that Abby is a lesbian, with a divorce-lawyer wife and two young kids. The clients she entertains are women too–some of them gay, some merely curious. But one of the quietly revolutionary things about Concussion is that it takes Abby’s sexuality and her domestic situation as givens and proceeds from there. (The Kids Are Alright 2 this isn’t.) The movie’s true subject is a problem–the loss of passion–that can happen in any relationship, and Passon addresses it in a series of smart, funny and surprising ways.

Key to this is the fearless performance of Weigert, best known for playing Calamity Jane on Deadwood, and the kind of actress unlikely to be offered major roles by Hollywood unless she first hires an assassin to take out Meryl Streep. There’s been a lot of talk about the large number of Sundance competition movies by and about women this year. Here, at last, is one worth crowing about.

Follow Scott Foundas on Twitter at @FoundasOnFilm and read more of his stories here: Foundas on Film.


Fantasy Island: Alexander Payne’s Feel-Good Hawaiian Excursion, The Descendants

As life-or-death dramedy, The Descendants poses several important questions: Why has it taken Alexander Payne seven years to follow up on his critically beloved, box-office boffo, merlot-squelching Sideways? And what has blunted this gifted writer-director’s edge?

Payne topped his debut feature, the provocatively obnoxious abortion comedy Citizen Ruth (1996), with Election (1999), an even sharper exercise in social satire, while the final, impressively bleak movie of his Omaha trilogy, About Schmidt (2002), afforded Jack Nicholson the opportunity for one last committed performance. But moving on to California for Sideways, Payne flirted with the New Age clichés he previously had targeted, and, set even further into the sunset, The Descendants is insistently sincere and positively sudsy.

Payne’s earlier movies have been strongly character-driven by richly flawed characters—Reese Witherspoon’s monstrous high school striver, Nicholson’s thoroughly unpleasant widower, the matched pair of jerks who stumble through Sideways—and his great talent was extracting a sense of sympathy even for them. In The Descendants, closely adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel, it’s more a case of bad things happening to good people: Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), prosperous scion of a Hawaiian family, is humbled by a flurry of body blows. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he declares in voiceover. A waterskiing mishap has landed Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma. His two daughters, the preteen Scottie (Amara Miller) and real teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are beyond his command, with Alexandra in possession of information to further rock her father’s world: “Dad, Mom was cheating on you!”

On top of that agony, Matt is unfairly abused by his irascible, hard-nosed father-in-law (Robert Forster), who blames him for Elizabeth’s accident. Adding to Matt’s responsibilities, as well as providing a corollary to the personal history upended by Elizabeth’s infidelity, is the decision he must make, as head of the King family trust, to sell or bequest a large tract of unspoiled beachfront property—primeval Hawaii. The two narrative strands entwine when Matt discovers that his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard), a glad-handing realtor, is actually vacationing with his wife (Judy Greer) and kids adjacent to the Edenic spot where he will be meeting with his clan, most memorably his dissolute cousin (Beau Bridges), to finalize the disposition of their legacy. Cosmic coincidence or crafty plot contrivance?

Despite the large, and talented, cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star. But, even with the crutch provided by an insistent voiceover, Clooney’s part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor’s own blessings are so evident that it’s hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be. With supporting characters called upon to react toward him or develop around him as necessary in a given situation, the narrative feels less like an unfolding novel than like an inflated short story. Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that’s a foregone conclusion.

Payne’s film, which closed last month’s New York Film Festival on an upbeat note, has been generally hailed for its enlightened sensitivity and modest humanism; it’s being touted by industry savants for a Best Picture Oscar because it’s the sort of movie that, in resolving a tragically irresolvable situation, encourages audiences and studios to feel good about themselves. Still, save for a reflexive response to the spectacle of “girlfriend in a coma” (ironically, the best scenes are the solos Clooney directs at comatose Hastie—moments that make clear what is otherwise implicit), it left me cold. The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist’s privilege.

Matt, whose main defect is his passivity, starts out begging for sympathy—but his circumstances are far more compelling than he. King Matt is the most charming and least interesting character Payne has ever featured—and despite a gesture or two toward Honolulu’s downside, Hawaii still feels like heaven on earth.


NYFF: Life is (Alexander) Payne

I don’t think about the home where my films will land,” says Alexander Payne, free-range in a film culture fenced off into art house and multiplex, to the detriment of both. He describes the audience that he writes for as “my best friends and myself. . . . Then your luck in your career is that what occurs to you and your best friends as entertaining and interesting also occurs to a significant amount of others that way.”

Payne is very, very lucky. The trajectory of his career has been an ongoing parallel rise in box-office success, critical estimation, and final-cut clout, from abortion satire Citizen Ruth (1996) to Election (1999)—much-cited in the 2008 Democratic primaries for its main character’s not entirely flattering resemblance to Hillary Clinton—to the twin watersheds of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004). With the first, Jack Nicholson’s participation made Payne a star; by the second, Payne could do the same for Paul Giamatti.

Sitting across the table at La Buvette, a wine store and restaurant in hometown Omaha’s Old Market neighborhood, Payne, a trim, well-turned-out and fresh-looking 50, the owner of two Federico Fellini sketches “given to me by an Italian princess who lives in Hawaii,” the hometown boy who can go home again, seems a success by any measure. Success has not, though, been his topic.

Payne grew up comfortably in Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood, where his parents still live, four blocks away from Warren Buffett, who of course still lives there, too. About Schmidt, however, is concerned with another Warren, this one unfulfilled, with a Future Business Leaders of America pedigree and deferred dreams of entrepreneurship. Payne has had a career that most artists would sacrifice their firstborn for. Sideways, however, follows an unpublished novelist, whose manuscript receives its terminal rejection as he’s touring Santa Ynez Valley wine country. (“It was kind of slight for my tastes,” says Payne, ever happy to denigrate his own accomplishments.)

The Descendants, which closes this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival and opens theatrically in November, features the most prosperous protagonist of Payne’s career. Matt King is Hawaiian-landed gentry, the great-great-grandson of native royalty and colonizing bluebloods who now manages the family trust and is currently faced with disposing of 25,000 acres of undeveloped paradise on Kauai to the profit of himself and a coterie of cousins. (The dilemma is how much richer to get.) King is played by George Clooney, who had previously expressed interest the role of Jack in Sideways, a part that eventually went to Thomas Haden Church. “I wouldn’t believe the most handsome and successful movie actor playing the most washed-up TV actor,” says Payne. “I didn’t want that to be the joke.”

Now Payne has finally cast Clooney—as a handsome, successful failure. As the film begins, King’s free-spirit wife lies in a coma after a boating accident. He learns that she will not wake up, that her will stipulates pulling the plug, and that he must actively deal with two daughters for whom he has previously only been the “backup parent,” a pushy 10-year-old (Amara Miller) and a wild 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley), brought back from the boarding-school gulag and showing unexpected backbone when presented with the errand of spreading word of her mother’s impending death.

“Both Schmidt and The Descendants have a protagonist who’s reached a point in life, who says, ‘I’ve done my job, I’ve been a good provider . . .’ and doesn’t realize how distant he’s been from others and from himself,” says Payne, himself divorced with no kids. Both men are also made madly jealous upon learning of indiscretions by wives now past blame. On the recurrence of infidelity in his work, Payne is tight-lipped: “It seems pretty common, pretty dramatic . . . Maybe I felt some jealousy early in life, and that’s made a mark. Maybe.”

The Descendants draws a network of generational masculine rivalries around King—between King and his wife’s goading father (Robert Forster); between King and his daughter’s tagalong boyfriend (Nick Krause, whose broad, squinting grin radiates Neolithic stupidity). The viewer sees these men at first as King does: just more burden to bear. Eventually we come to realize, through Clooney’s artfully withholding reaction shots, that they are people with private fortitude and sadness all their own.

“To say something bad about someone, to caricaturize someone, but then to go, ‘Yeah, but God love ’em,’ that might be something particularly Midwestern,” Payne says. The harsh initial judgment, followed by the recall of the same judgment, is a signature of Payne’s films; my own relationship with his work went through the same recoil and reconsideration. Where Payne’s craftsmanship was always obvious, his warmth seemed more elusive; my Damascus moment was Payne’s contribution to 2005 omnibus movie Paris Je T’Aime. Margo Martindale plays Carol, a husky middle-aged Denver letter carrier in tapered khakis and fanny pack, viewed on a vacation to Paris which she narrates in clomping French, as if before an adult-education class. There is fun had at Carol’s clumsiness—she confuses Simone de Beauvoir with Simón Bolívar, eats at bad restaurants, talks about her dogs in that way that suggests a life of profound lack—but by the time the film concludes, flat caricature has become character. While Carol sits in the Parc Montsouris, her voiceover expresses inchoate feelings within—“at the same time joy and sadness”—conveying a breadth of spirit that we’re all certain we have and yet are quick to deny to others. “If I could say I’m proud of any of my films, I would say that one,” says Payne. “I think it does everything in six minutes. . . . It’s a little line drawing.” This proved the key to unlocking Payne’s work for me: Whereas once the closing shot of a teary Nicholson in About Schmidt had seemed like money-shot sentimentality, now it felt like the last stroke in that rare portrait to acknowledge its subject’s ignoble and sublime aspects, with neither overriding the other.


The Descendants is Payne’s first feature in seven years. “It just happened. ’05 was a washout, ’06, ’07, ’08, a lot of that time was spent writing a screenplay with Jim Taylor that we haven’t made yet. Late ’08 I was so anxious to beat up on actors that I did a pilot [HBO’s Hung]. And then in ’09, I started work on this. It just happened, I don’t know where the time went.”

In March, the director returned to what he calls “River City” after a year divided between shooting in Hawaii and editing in L.A.; he’s preparing to shoot a new Nebraska–set film, the above-mentioned Downsizing, next spring. A cheap flight brought me to Omaha early, two days before my lunch with Payne was scheduled. This gave me ample time to hoof it around the setting of Payne’s first three features—and on foot one can still find the grotty Omaha of those films, the city he gladly left behind for Stanford years ago. “At the time, there was a lot less going on in Omaha than there is now, and young people definitely felt a lot more ‘Get me out of this cowtown,’” he says. “Now people want to stay, and young people come back, but at the time it was . . . really great to leave.”

Omaha’s rising fortunes have matched Payne’s. The Woodmen Tower where Warren Schmidt wasted his life has been surpassed in height and corporate impersonality by the First National Bank Tower, seen going up in Schmidt. Another recent construction: Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater, a nonprofit repertory/art house film space founded in 2007, where Payne sits on the board of directors. He is, in middle age, a shameless booster. When I visit Payne at his downtown apartment, he is enthused at finding frozen guanabana at a newly discovered Peruvian grocery, a first in Omaha, and another testament to the city’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism. Later, from the promontory of his rooftop deck, he traces the geography of Old Omaha over a panoramic view of the New: A block north, there is the site where his grandfather and father operated a restaurant for 50 years; all around, the ghosts of long-ago-razed theaters, some of whose names, recited with pleasure, give a clear sense of moviegoing as Payne’s personal universe: “In the old days, that was The World, that was The Moon, and that was The Sun . . . ”

As with many an educated provincial, Payne’s universe expanded exponentially when he left town. From Stanford, he went to a distinguished showing at UCLA’s film school, finishing the education begun in now long-gone movie houses. From here, he could’ve very easily left Omaha in the rearview—but instead he came back to film it as he saw it. “Jason Reitman came out here to shoot a couple days on Up in the Air—because the character was supposed to be based in Omaha. And he asked me later, ‘So what did you think of how I treated your city?’ And I said, ‘You didn’t. I didn’t see Omaha in there at all. I heard the name, but I didn’t see it.’”

As we’re increasingly asked to accept the outskirts of Vancouver or Toronto as Anytown, USA, Payne remains dedicated to pinning down regional particularities. The specificities of his last two source novels—Nebraska is not famous for its pinot—have taken him abroad, but he retains a keen eye for local variants. “I don’t know why; I’m very interested somehow in ‘a sense of place.’ . . . I hadn’t ever really seen Honolulu in a film, and that was one of the appeals of doing [The Descendants].” This meant Payne’s usual process of populating the film with locally sourced non-actors, all toward “getting that very specific, complex, kind of intimidating social fabric out there.”


Based on the debut novel by Hawaiian–born Kaui Hart Hemmings, much of the film’s humor comes from the antagonism between King, molded by old-money dictums of responsibility and never, ever drawing down his principal and the island’s prevailing “hang loose” attitude. Regardless of location, Payne brings certain Midwestern values with him: “By the way, that line where [King] says, ‘I agree with my father, you give your kids just enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing’? That’s stolen from Warren Buffett. That’s an Omaha line.”

You cannot throw a stone in the new downtown Omaha without hitting a statue of a covered wagon or bonneted settler woman—this is, after all, Willa Cather country. So, too, are Payne’s very contemporary films shadowed by history: Schmidt discussing Buffalo Bill Cody’s house or dwarfed by larger-than-life images of pioneers at the Kearny Arch museum, marveling at the fortitude of the early Westerners; Matt King contemplating the photographs of his royal ancestry in The Descendants, a film whose very title speaks to the looming presence of our never-past past. “There’s a discrepancy between self-image and the reality in front of them,” Payne explains of these characters, between “what’s expected—what one assumes is expected by forebears—and the reality.”

Although not so confrontational as Election, Payne’s latest retains his wicked sense of humor rooted in discord—the friction between different class-based social expectations, between a purposeful past and an aimless present, between intensity of feeling and ridiculousness of expression. Payne pays great attention to the sound in his films, those little subversive elements in the mix that undercut the most dramatic moments with absurdity, like the flap-flap-flap of King’s docksides as he sprints out of his house, faced with the fact of his wife’s unfaithfulness. “For me, the funniest cut in The Descendants is when Judy Greer goes to the wife’s bedside, says, ‘Hello, I’m Julie, I’m Brian’s wife.’ And then it cuts to the woman’s face”—here Payne, whose conversation is peppered with pantomime, tosses his head back, mouth-agape, imitating the comatose Mrs. King—“That always makes me laugh. That’s a grim cut.”

Later, reclined on a chaise lounge in his large but sparely furnished apartment, Payne imitates Toshiro Mifune’s scrambling, bug-eyed death scene, harried by a torrent of arrows, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This is after we’ve watched a bit of Pigs and Battleships, a hectic 1961 satire by Shohei Imamura, a director whom we both admire. Imamura, Payne says, “just accepts the animal nature of people. He’s kind of a biologist, anthropologist.” We also watch a TV interview with Imamura late in life. “Anybody can act well if I direct them well,” says the Japanese director. “Yes,” says the American. “Drama is about ordinary people, their lives, and the turning points in their lives,” continues Imamura. “Yes, yes,” responds Payne.

There is a sense of sad, stoic acceptance at the end of The Descendants that one more closely associates with Japanese than with Western cinema. This firms my conviction about Payne, whose fine-point regionalism and unpretentious intelligence accompanies a concern in legitimate universal truths: Payne returns so consistently to failure that failure seems to be his definition of life itself. And in place of triumph, he offers only the possibility of small victories before the final, inevitable loss.

When, over lunch, I observe to Payne that his movies aren’t “redemptive,” he replies cheerily, “Thank you!” I want him to admit how unique his position is, to have captured such a large audience while expressing such a basically pessimistic worldview. When I press him, though, he always returns with, “Isn’t that life?”—as if he can’t imagine anyone taking it for anything else. “Look: An elephant dies. All the other elephants stamp”—here he clomps his hands on the table—“and throw dirt around and trumpet”—here he waves his arms to simulate wagging trunks—“and get really depressed.” Now he sits still. “And then they move on.”


An Unusual Taste of Mainstream Indian Cinema in Peepli Live

First widely reported in the ’90s, an ongoing suicide epidemic in Central India has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of farmers too miserably destitute to go on, in part because their families are thereafter bestowed with a piddling government grant of about $2,000. In first-time filmmaker Anusha Rizvi’s amusingly bittersweet satire, bushy-haired introvert Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri, one newcomer in a cast of mostly rural locals) fears his land will soon be seized due to an unpaid loan, and is coerced by his older brother into offing himself for the financial good of his family. Another villager overhears the plan and tells someone else, the escalating game of “Telephone” pulling in the scoop-hungry national media, nervous bureaucrats, and two rival politicians who are leveraging the issue for electoral gain. The grand joke of it all, less subversively executed than in Alexander Payne’s all-eyes-on-one-pawn farce Citizen Ruth, is that nobody has bothered asking poor Natha what he really wants. It’s an unusual taste of mainstream Indian cinema (or, thanks to superstar Aamir Khan’s production company, it’s a small film given an unusually mainstream push), unexpectedly irreverent with an earthier, folkier soundtrack than the typical Bollywood electro-bounce.


Citizen Ruth

(Alexander Payne, 1996).
Alexander Payne’s something-to-offend-everyone debut feature is coarser in its character-driven comedy than Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways but taking the abortion issue as the subject for social satire was a bold move and setting it in deepest Nebraska even bolder still. Laura Dern gives her career performance in the title role.

Wednesdays-Fridays, 1:30 p.m. Starts: Oct. 29. Continues through Oct. 31, 2008


‘Paris, Je T’aime’

Paris, Je T’aime‘s brimming declaration of love to the City of Lights leaves one breathless but dissatisfied. Paris’s quartiers and the rainbow coalition of people who inhabit them are the connective tissue for this spotty omnibus’s 18 segments; five minutes each, these trifles come and go before they’ve registered in the mind. Only Tom Tykwer attempts to redress this constraint by evoking a blind man’s romance with an actress as a spastic glitch in time. Isabelle Coixet and Nobuhiro Suwa’s contributions are endearingly bittersweet suck-ups to love and death, but both treat the Paris setting as superfluous. Sylvain Chomet, Olivier Assayas, and Alexander Payne more sensitively consider the feelings of elation the city can rouse, while Oliver Schmitz conveys the complex politics of Paris’s racial diversity with a heft and economy that evades Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas. Leave it to the Coen brothers to show everyone up with their acerbic Tuileries, in which Steve Buscemi’s encounter with a hellish couple inside a Metro station slyly hints at a raison d’être for the Mona Lisa’s smile—a symbol for the transfixing allure of the most beautiful city in the world.


Getting It Together: The Best in Film Share Their Secrets

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t merely worship Uma Thurman—he takes her iconicity as a given. With good reason, he has called her the Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg. From her coked-up moll in Pulp Fiction to her grief-struck avenger in Kill Bill, Tarantino has located a purpose and grandeur in his leading lady’s gangly poise that has so far eluded other filmmakers: The Bride’s poignant aura of battle-weary majesty is as breathtaking in Kill Bill as any of the movie’s inspired grind house thievings. MOMA’s new series of conversations, “Great Collaborations,” kicks off tonight with a chat between Tarantino and Thurman. (Let’s hope the Bride can get a word in edgewise.) From geeks to schlubs: For the second installment on January 19, Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor—already this year’s adapted-screenplay Oscar shoo-ins for Sideways—will shed some light on the recipe of cynicism and sentimentality that has proved such a hit with film critics. Sideways sad sack Paul Giamatti will moderate.


Days of Wine and Neuroses: Bachelor Buddies Hit the Road

Alternately irritable and irritating, the paunchy, balding Paul Giamatti is so spirited in his distress and so recognizably human in his attributes that he bids to define a genre. There’s Storytelling (in which he played a wheedling indie filmmaker), American Splendor (wherein his “Harvey Pekar” seemed more authentic than the real Pekar), and now Alexander Payne’s superbly directed Sideways.

Payne’s ferocious critic- (and perhaps crowd-) pleaser stars über-nebbish Giamatti as a depressed eighth-grade teacher and failed novelist, still brooding over the wife who dumped him. Miles is also the world’s whiniest oenophile, who treats his skirt-chasing soon-to-be-married best friend to a week-long vineyard tour through Southern California’s Santa Ynez Valley. This excellent adventure affords a hilarious and excruciating bout of bachelor bonding, with Giamatti’s self-loathing Miles acting off the monstrously self-absorbed Jack. A minor TV personality with the tousled locks and ruddy hide of an overcooked beach bum, Jack is played by sometime TV actor Thomas Haden Church, who comes very close to stealing the movie.

The adventure begins inauspiciously with a detour to wish Miles’s mother a happy birthday. (Turns out she’s a garrulous floozy.) Things grow increasingly fraught once it becomes clear that, whatever Miles’s fantasy might be, Jack’s agenda is to get laid. Adapted from (and improving on) Rex Pickett’s novel, Sideways is thus a cross between a three-legged sack race and a pedant’s bacchanal. While Jack is cheerfully tasteless, Miles is a ferocious snob. Among other things, the movie should consign merlot to the bargain rack while, thanks to Miles’s showstopping disquisition, sending pinot noir orders through the roof.

Delivered to a sweet-natured waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen), Miles’s paean is filled with pathos. But much of the comedy here is beyond poignant—it’s painful. “Did you drink and dial?” Jack asks when Miles interrupts a double date with Maya and sassy pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) to call his ex-wife. Payne stops short of outing Miles as a hapless lush, but he does include one harrowing scene involving a vineyard slush bucket.

Payne’s movies have been distinguished by their indelible characters: Laura Dern’s Citizen Ruth, Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt. Maya and Stephanie are vivid, fetching abstractions; Jack and Miles are male archetypes, as well as the two most fully realized comic creations in recent American movies.


Road Warriors

Driving into the blizzard of Christmas releases come two star-powered road movies, the echt-American About Schmidt and Brit fave Morvern Callar. Each named for its main character, these are seriously pop adaptations of recent novels that narrate unreliably and disdain quotation marks. In both texts, the character is plunged into existential confusion by the sudden death of a significant other, and in both movies, that turmoil is grounded in location.

Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, which opened the last New York Film Festival, is an impressively bleak comedy with intimations of social satire. Like Payne’s previous Citizen Ruth and Election, it’s essentially a character study set against the flat normality of the filmmaker’s native Nebraska. Payne’s dedication to fly-over country is the mark of his integrity. Indeed, in adapting the basic situation of Louis Begley’s 1996 novel—the sixtysomething hero’s wife dies as he is forced into retirement and his only child prepares to marry a man he dislikes—the filmmaker has made a fascinating transposition of the material.

Where Begley’s Schmidt is an urbane and wealthy Harvard-educated New York lawyer, Payne’s, played by Jack Nicholson as though it were his last testament, is an insular Omaha insurance executive. Schmidt’s daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is not a vapid advertising executive but an unhappy shipping clerk, and rather than the Jewish son of two Manhattan shrinks, Jeannie’s beau Randall (Dermot Mulroney) is a water-bed salesman with a mullet. The original Schmidt’s genteel anti-Semitism is here a more free-floating parochial misanthropy. The novel’s protagonist had a certain residual charm; the movie’s suggests the R. Crumb character Whiteman, introduced in an empty office, mouth pursed and posture rigid as he sits waiting for the stroke of five to mark the end of his working life.

The retirement party for this failed Babbitt is the first of the movie’s painfully comic ceremonies—not least for the smug self-satisfaction with which Schmidt stiffly marches to the bar for a quick one. The future promises no golden sunset. Schmidt has purchased a huge Winnebago with which to travel in the company of Helen (June Squibb), the dowdy wife he has grown to loathe. Idly wondering about his social use value, Schmidt impetuously decides to contribute $22 a month to the welfare of an African foster child. His letters to six-year-old Ndugu not only serve a useful narrative purpose, they give voice to Schmidt’s curdled Reaganite consciousness—a cliché-rich mix of inane pride, rote optimism, and genial condescension. That sensibility is effectively globalized when Helen suddenly drops dead. “Anger’s OK,” the reverend tells him at the funeral. “God can handle it if we’re angry at him.” Schmidt, who makes a lame attempt to get Jeannie to care for him, is scarcely more comforted when reminded by Randall that Helen was “a very special lady.”

Two weeks later, Schmidt’s house is messier than a pigsty and he takes to the road, looking for some sort of verity, en route to Jeannie’s wedding in Denver. The resentful Jeannie discourages his early arrival. His childhood home, he discovers, is now a tire store. Schmidt’s failure to make human contact—exemplified by a grotesque gaffe in trailer park etiquette and a ludicrous attempt to communicate with Helen’s spirit—reaches its pinnacle when he finally arrives in Denver and meets Randall’s mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates), who, in a hilarious gloss on the novel’s prospective in-law, is a fount of touchy-feely aggression.

As in Citizen Ruth, Payne dramatizes the conflict between the modes of thought once defined as old-fashioned, Middle American Consciousness I and New Age Consciousness III. In addition to decoding Roberta’s coarse psychobabble and intricate family ties, the uptight Schmidt is obliged to wrestle with a water bed, experience a hot tub, and learn far more than he would like about his hostess’s sex life before retreating to the safety of his Winnebago fortress. (Ex-hippie that she is, Roberta does make it possible for Schmidt to attend a family dinner stoned on Percodan.) Throughout his travails, Nicholson is only mildly sarcastic. Or rather, his disdain is Schmidt’s—a tight little smile born of obtuseness, isolation, and terror. As the star declines to signal his superiority to his character or ingratiate himself with the audience, so the movie resists sentimentality—even as Schmidt’s clueless internal monologue infuses an uninviting terrain of malls, chain restaurants, and historical monuments with hilarious pathos.

Payne is essentially a rhetorician. Like his previous films, About Schmidt is predicated on a familiarity with the American vernacular of ritual insincerity, stupefied testimonials, and mindless bromides. But here, the caricatures are more restrained. One may not realize how truly sad this movie is until the forlorn final moments, when Payne resists an inspirational closer, and, with exquisite tact, averts his eyes.

Nebraska must be a state of mind. Initially set in a small port in western Scotland, a desolate region that director Lynne Ramsay has compared to the American Midwest, Morvern Callar opens with the seasonal tableaux from hell. Abel Ferrara might gnash his teeth in envy at the spectacle of the movie’s eponymous heroine (Samantha Morton) lying impassively on her cold kitchen floor next to her dead boyfriend—a Christmas Eve suicide—as the blinking lights of their tree are reflected in an oozing pool of blood.

Adapted from Scottish writer Alan Warner’s 1995 cult novel, Morvern Callar—which opens next week opposite The Two Towers and Gangs of New York—has already been anointed the year’s “coolest movie” by Sight and Sound. Steeped in the candy-colored anomie that prompted Ramsay to describe her source as “Camus for teenagers,” the film is far more fashionably fluid and dreamily disjunctive than the filmmaker’s highly regarded debut, the kitchen-sink childhood gothic Ratcatcher (1999). No less than Mersault, the antihero of Camus’s The Stranger, Morvern seems singularly unmoved by a loved one’s death. She opens her Christmas presents, then leaves the body to go out into the night and party with her friend Lanna (played with animal enthusiasm by nonprofessional actor Kathleen McDermott).

Asked where her boyfriend is, Morvern explains that he’s left her. For a time, she lives her life around his corpse; reading his suicide note, she discovers that the dead man has completed a novel, which, following his instructions, she prints out and sends off to a London publisher. Morvern impulsively substitutes her name on the title page, but her now doubly anonymous boyfriend is, in effect, the author of the larger narrative. (In Warner’s novel he is referred to only as the always capitalized “He.”) His bank account and, eventually, his book buy Morvern’s freedom—although it is her job as a supermarket clerk that gives her some idea of how to dispose of his body.

This imaginary author also contributes mightily to the movie, as Morvern is usually plugged into her Walkman and the all-important film score is largely taken from the detailed playlists, described in the novel, that her late lover made for her. However, Ramsay erases Warner’s Morvern Callar as nervelessly as Morvern does her boyfriend by eliminating the novel’s amorphous first-person narration. (Mysteriously, Morton herself eschews a Scottish accent—just as she refused the necessary American accent for Amos Gitai’s Eden—although, in keeping with her propensity for taciturn roles, she speaks as little as possible.)

There is no access to Morvern’s consciousness, such as it is. Her numbness is meant to find eloquence in the movie’s lurid colors and luminous tactility. Throughout, Ramsay keeps her camera close to the action, offering ample opportunity to contemplate Morton’s sturdy figure and symmetrical, blankly expressive face. (Her perfectly straight mouth unexpectedly breaks into a near demented smile of crooked teeth whenever she and McDermott get to cackling—the rapport between the Oscar nominee and the neophyte seems felt.)

“One of those terrible innocents who shock society by not accepting the rules of its game” (as Sartre described Camus’s Mersault), Ramsay’s enigmatic Morvern appears to accept the absurd. Midway through, Scotland’s cold winter light gives way to the blazing disorientation of Spain’s Costa del Sol, as she and Lanna use the dead man’s credit card to take off for a prefab, all-inclusive resort filled with stoned young baboons on holiday. Again like Mersault, Morvern always tells the truth, most cunningly in the scene where she meets with the fatuous young editors who are interested in acquiring “her” novel.

Although Ramsay would like to establish Morvern as something beyond a mindless rave chick, the movie is more engrossing than convincing. Still, the filmmaker is less sentimental than Warner when the time comes to reckon Morvern’s fate. The viewer might be moved when she elects to remain alone in the disco inferno of her particular planet. (Here, Ramsay makes her own musical comment with the Mamas and the Papas’ incantatory cover of “Dedicated to the One I Love.”) Like its protagonist, the movie is indifferent to everything but physical sensation.

Related Article:

Save the Last Trance: Lynne Ramsay’s Callar I.D.” by Jessica Winter