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