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ABOUT SCHMIDT

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After a fallow period when he seemed largely to be coasting along on past laurels, Jack Nicholson has returned to top firm in recent years. His harrowing performance in Sean Penn’s “The Pledge” (2001) was a career high point that never received the attention it deserved (the film wasn’t properly recognized, either), and now, in Alexander Payne’s cheerily quirky, very loose and wonderfully loopy adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel, he gives a remarkable exhibition of thespian control and subtlety. “About Schmidt” showcases what’s easily one of the year’s best performances, and it’s thoroughly delightful besides.

The picture is basically a character study done in the gentle, laid-back style–an oddball combination of grittiness and whimsy–that seems all Payne’s own. The central figure is Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), an actuary at a big Omaha insurance company, whom we meet on the last day of his employment. After a retirement party where he’s clumsily saluted by his old friend Ray (Len Cariou), the unassuming but quietly eccentric fellow returns home with wife Helen (June Squibb). Soon he’s growing increasingly disenchanted and searching for ways to get some time away from the house–visiting his old office, stopping off at a fast-food joint, and–most importantly–becoming, in response to one of those ubiquitous TV ads pleading for assistance, the sponsor of an African child to whom he begins penning long, rambling, hilariously revealing and totally inappropriate letters about his plight which provide narration that carries the story along. When Helen suddenly dies, Warren takes the tragedy in stride, especially since it means the temporary return of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who brings along Randall (Dermot Mulroney), the good-natured but goofy waterbed salesman she’s scheduled shortly to marry. But after Jeannie leaves again, Warren learns that Helen had once had a brief fling with Ray, and the discovery sends him into an emotional tailspin. Eventually he climbs into the RV in which he and Helen had intended to travel the country and speeds off to California on a mission to convince Jeannie to dump Randall, whom he thinks utterly beneath his daughter. After some amusing detours along the way, he winds up at the home of Randall’s mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), a boisterous throwback to the sixties, and the fellow’s other hapless relatives. Warren tries to persuade Jeannie to call the wedding off, but in the end he has to come to terms with her decision and his own altered circumstances. The poignant undercurrents that have been working all along break out briefly at the end, but even here the picture retains a tone of gentlemanly reserve, eschewing the crude overstatement so characteristic of studio movies.

Though he’s onscreen almost constantly throughout “About Schmidt” and so has ample opportunity to do so, Nicholson never forces things, and neither does Payne. The script has plenty of softly amusing twists and turns, but director and star collaborate to insure that they’re all done with great delicacy and restraint. Nicholson could have gone completely overboard, for example, in a sequence when Roberta joins him au naturel in a jacuzzi, or in another when Schmidt misinterprets the attitude of a woman whose husband invites him for dinner while he’s on the road; but instead of raising his famous eyebrows or flashing that sardonic grin, he stays resolutely in character, drawing a consistently convincing portrait of a man who, in his own homespun way, is controlled, fastidious and deeply serious. And in Warren’s big speech at Jeannie’s wedding reception, he plays things flawlessly, suggesting the man’s impulse to let loose but, like Schmidt himself, pulling back beautifully. In a part that virtually invites the sort of eyeball-rolling and snappish delivery he’s known for, Nicholson studiously checks all his usual flamboyant mannerisms, while remaining someone you can’t take your eyes off. It’s a great turn, a masterpiece of understatement.

Bates, on the other hand, comes on like gangbusters and never lets up; it’s clear she’s having a grand time playing a woman completely devoid of inhibitions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Squibb cuts the very image of the plain, unremarkable housewife. Mulroney brings a touch of real sweetness to Randall, who might have been nothing but a grinning caricature, and Howard Hesseman’s blandness is perfect for his blissfully obtuse father. Davis, on the other hand, can’t do much with the underwritten Jeannie, and Cariou’s phony bonhomie is too unvaried. But the pitch-perfect production design, unostentatious cinematography by James Glennon and supportive score by Rolfe Kent are all pluses.

“About Schmidt” will probably be lauded most for Nicholson’s impeccable work, but it should also be seen as a triumph for Payne. After only a few films, the writer-director has demonstrated that he has a unique voice (just as Wes Anderson does), a style that’s wonderfully laid-back and effortlessly amusing, but at the same time insightful and genuine. What’s marked all his films is the human truthfulness beneath the humor, and a sense of place that seems absolutely authentic despite whatever absurdities might happen. Despite their satiric edge, the portrait Payne’s pictures paint of middle America is basically an understanding and even affectionate one. “Schmidt” shares those strengths with “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” and together they form a Nebraska trilogy that’s one of the jewels of recent American film.

FAR FROM HEAVEN

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Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” is a small miracle of a film, a pitch-perfect homage to American films of the fifties that becomes genuinely moving in its own right. Nothing in the writer-director’s previous work–a succession of interesting failures that includes “Poison,” “Safe” and “Velvet Goldmine”–suggested that he was capable of such a perfect fusion of style and content. “Far From Heaven” may have originated as a stunt, but it’s one that transcends its roots and becomes a real work of art. It’s an entrancing and captivating film, easily one of the year’s best.

Haynes’ picture is, first of all, a tribute to the glossy, female-centered domestic dramas that Douglas Sirk specialized in–particularly “All That Heaven Allows,” with which it shares many narrative elements, principally the heroine’s dalliance with a handsome gardener–but as the small-town theatre marquee that appears periodically reminds us, thematically it refers back to other pictures of the period, too (the title of “Hilda Crane” shown at one point reinforces the plot strand involving behavior that leads to local gossip and ostracism). And in making the chaste romance in which the protagonist indulges an interracial one and further raising–in the same muted fashion reminiscent of “Tea and Sympathy”–the issue of dreaded homosexual inclinations (in this context still “the love that dare not speak its name”), it also calls to mind the socially conscious films of the same period (and the early sixties). But that’s still not all: in its depiction of the corporate culture of the time, the script touches on the kinds of issues familiar from such films as “Patterns” and “Executive Suite.” One might expect that Haynes’ picture would have to scramble to draw all these threads together into a convincing whole, but in fact it manages to integrate them seamlessly.

It also captures flawlessly the style of its models. The plush cinematography of Edward Lachman revels in the brilliant autumn colors and swooning camera movements and crane shots so typical of Haynes’ exemplars, and the entire physical production–comprising Mark Friedberg’s production design, Peter Rogness’ art direction, Ellen Christiansen’s set decoration and Sandy Powell’s costume design–is meticulous, lovely and often even witty. To top everything off, that old master Elmer Bernstein contributes a score that’s perfectly judged and absolutely beautiful–as enchanting in its way as his classic music for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

All of this dexterity would mean little, of course, if “Far from Heaven” remained nothing more than a curio–a technically impressive but emotionally empty relic. But it doesn’t; instead it actually reminds us how powerful and compelling those fifties movies were (and, if viewed without a cynical attitude, still are) even with their obvious contrivances. A good deal of the reason lies in Haynes’ skill, but much is also attributable to the fine cast he’s assembled. Julianne Moore has previously done excellent work in challenging roles, but she outdoes herself here, creating in Cathy Whitaker (dead-on name) a Loretta Young housewife who leaves the stereotype behind and becomes a figure with whom a viewer can honestly empathize; and as the quiet, somber black man whose kindness draws her toward him in her troubles, Dennis Haysbert paints a portrait of wounded dignity and submerged sadness every bit as moving as those that Brock Peters and the young Sidney Poitier used to etch. More surprising, perhaps, is the depth and richness that Dennis Quaid brings to Frank, Cathy’s insecure, sexually troubled businessman-husband. He’s never been this good before. And Patricia Clarkson couldn’t be better as Cathy’s best-friend neighbor, whose support proves insufficient to survive the ultimate plot revelations. Lesser roles, too, are memorably filled.

As movies demonstrate all too often, however, the finest actors in the world will be stranded when confronted by bad writing and sloppy direction. That’s why ultimately the triumph of “Far from Heaven” has to be credited primarily to Haynes. Even if you’ve found his previous films heavy going, don’t rob yourself of the pleasure of this one. Just be willing to go along with the initial conceit and you’ll discover that it’s not merely a beautifully-crafted cinematic trick; it’s quite simply an elegant and astonishingly eloquent film.