Film: Flyover Country

In Hollywood, ordinary middle-class life is a state to be escaped, not examined. Unlike their novel-writing counterparts, American filmmakers are almost never willing to set a serious drama in a believable-looking small town (Kenneth Lonergan’s masterly You Can Count on Me was a rare exception) or even a medium-sized city anywhere other than on the East or West Coasts. To them, the vast expanse of terra incognita known in New York and Los Angeles as “flyover country” is little more than a breeding ground for cross-burners, serial murderers, and Republicans.

This iron law applies with particular force to the part of America where I was born and raised. It happens that I am writing this month’s column in a small midwestern town, the sort of place whose existence is all but unknown to most movie directors. As I unspooled a decade’s worth of memorable films in my head, I was hard-pressed to think of any that conveyed the slightest sense of what it looks and feels like to live in Red America. It’s revealing that the first ones to come to mind were Waiting for Guffman and Election, both of which are satires.

Now Alexander Payne, the director and cowriter (with Jim Taylor) of Election, has returned to Omaha, Nebraska, to make a very different sort of movie about life among the regular guys. To be sure, About Schmidt is also a satire, but its comic effects are much less broad than those of Election—indeed, you almost have to come from the Midwest to know that Payne and Taylor are exaggerating anything at all. Had Payne cast an actor other than Jack Nicholson, who is incapable of understatement, to play the part of Warren Schmidt, a superfluous middle manager whose tightly wrapped life unravels when he is nudged into the comfortable oblivion of retirement, it might well have been possible to take About Schmidt at something close to face value.

As it is, Nicholson does his best to keep from over-egging the pudding, but for all his palpably good intentions, I kept wishing that Payne had cast someone more like William H. Macy. But, then, you can’t make a big-budget movie without at least one big-budget star, and Nicholson is more than good enough to make About Schmidt much more than plausible. Even with Nicholson, it is one of the very best movies about which I have been lucky enough to write in this space.

Like Barbershop, another fine film that seeks to show the world as it is, About Schmidt doesn’t have much of a plot. Warren Schmidt is settling uneasily into a boring retirement when he comes home one day and finds his wife, Helen (June Squibb), dead on the floor of their kitchen. The shock of her death throws him into a depression from which he seeks to extract himself by driving from Omaha to Denver in his motor home, there to visit his soon-to-be-married daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis, one of the best of the many fine actresses to come out of the indie-flick movement). Randall, Jeannie’s fiancé (Dermot Mulroney), is a long-haired waterbed salesman whose family never quite got over the 1960s. Jeannie loves him, but Schmidt loathes him, and the prospect of seeing his only child vanish into a mediocre marriage forces him to take an unsparing look at his own unsatisfying life.

One of the smartest things about Election was Alexander Payne’s refusal to let any of his characters off easy, even the ones with whom he might well have been expected to sympathize. Yes, Schmidt’s life has been emotionally constricted, but that didn’t make it altogether meaningless; yes, Randall and his family are more open to experience, but this openness has not made them better than Schmidt, just different. Most filmmakers make it agonizingly clear which side they’re on, but in About Schmidt as in Election before it, Payne casts a cold eye on all he sees. (It tells us everything we need to know about Randall, for instance, that he and Jeannie walk down the aisle to the insipid strains of Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer.”)

Interestingly enough, the only aspect of midwestern life about which About Schmidt has nothing interesting to say is religion. Warren Schmidt is experiencing a full-blown spiritual crisis, one whose seriousness is in no way diminished by his own smallness of soul, and it is surprising—to put it mildly that at no time in the course of the movie does he look to religion, organized or otherwise, as a possible source of enlightenment or solace. One could easily imagine his having been left in the lurch by the spiritual blandness of latter-day mainline Protestantism, in much the same way that Kenneth Lonergan skewers the sin-free Methodism of the clergyman he plays in You Can Count on Me. Yet in a film otherwise notable for its uncanny fidelity to fact, it is impossible to forget that a couple like Warren and Helen Schmidt would almost certainly have been fairly regular churchgoers in real life.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is allegedly set in a suburb of Chicago (it was actually filmed in Toronto), does manage to get the religious angle right, though it is in most other ways a sit-commy fantasy, albeit a good-hearted one. When Ian Miller (John Corbett) falls in love with Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the screenplay), he discovers that in order to marry her without antagonizing her vast immigrant clan, he must first be baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith. Neither he nor Toula has more than a casual interest in religion, but by then he has come to realize that he is in love not only with Toula but with the overblown yet vibrant emotionalism of her family, so he submits to the formality of baptism, happily announcing “I’m a Greek now” as he dries off.

Except for this nice detail, you won’t be even slightly surprised by anything that happens in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which is Version 2,846-G of the stock Hollywood story about the ugly duckling who gets contact lenses, fixes her hair, and snags a cute guy. What makes it work is Vardalos’s wryly affectionate portrayal of the eccentricities of the wonderfully well-cast Portokalos family (headed by Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan). The Portokaloses are, of course, a dream team, an extended family that barks but never bites, and their toothlessness is intrinsic to the movie’s appeal. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the most successful independent film in history—it cost $5 million to make and has grossed $215 million to date—and the only thing I can’t figure out is why it didn’t get snapped up by a major studio in 30 seconds flat, since it is as sweet and soft as a day-old chocolate sundae.

Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago is a bit on the squishy side, too, but you should see it anyway, not least for Renee Zellweger’s terrific performance as Roxie Hart, a wanna-be chorus girl who becomes a star by shooting her faithless lover. Not since Bob Fosse’s 1972 film of Cabaret has a Broadway musical made it onto the silver screen without being hacked beyond recognition. This is definitely Chicago, but in order to make it work as a commercial movie, Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have turned Roxie into a sympathetic character, a switch that will amaze anyone familiar with the fathomlessly cynical version of Chicago currently playing on Broadway. Still, the production numbers are staged with zing, and Zellweger is just about impossible to resist, so your best bet is to forget everything you know about Chicago and have a good time.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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