Nobody's Perfect, indeed. If Anthony Lane can't get beyond Jack's celebrity, fine. He saw the movie at the NY Film Fest opening. His unabashed pinky-extended criticism almost always gives an enjoyable read. (Need some holiday cheer? Get his collected reviews, Nobody's Perfect, today Don't even think you can stuff a stocking with it or take it on a plane, though.)
But Salon's review by Charles Taylor seems to be such a bitter, willful misread of the film, it defies explanation. So let me explain: Taylor actually misunderstands the audience, or more precisely, large swaths of the population of the US, including the hundreds of millions of excruciatingly normal people who fail to "delight (movie directors as) eccentrics and kooks and small-town oddballs" and who would never consider themselves "vulgar and naive and tacky," just the opposite.
In About Schmidt as well as his previous films, Alexander Payne proves that excruciatingly normal doesn't automatically mean boring. Just the opposite. In a long Times article, A. O. Scott tries to place Payne's (and Nicholson's) Schmidt in a grand tradition of the "mythic cinema hero, The Regular Guy." This tradition extends from the creations of Clifford Odets, Sinclair Lewis, Arthur Miller, and John Updike to "just about every movie cop and sitcom dad." (Sitcom. Remember sitcom.) Although Scott cites Jimmy Stewart and Fred "My Three Sons" MacMurray, the only actual movie he cites is Marty, which Delbert Mann had originally directed on television. Mythic, indeed.
Marty is the classic immigrant affirmation story, which won Oscars in 1955, for its star (Ernest Borgnine, nee Borgnino, an Italian), writer Paddy Chayefsky, a Jew from the Bronx) producer (Harold Hecht, a Jew from Poland), and director (Mann, from...Lawrenceville, Kansas). Beset by his loud Italian mother and family and feeling fat an unattractive, Marty falls for a teacher; the mismatched couple overcomes the family's objections and their own insecurity on their way to their fairytale marriage. Sound familiar? It should, since it's the same damn plot as My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding.
David Denby rightly called Greek Wedding on its big, fat sitcom roots, and the story of how its unexpected success among The Ignored caught Hollywood and the culture capitalists off guard is now accepted wisdom; Denby's own New Yorker review didn't even appear until September, six months after the film's debut, and presumably, after Denby's aunts and mother wouldn't let him off the hook for ignoring it any longer. For The Ignored, it's their own story, told in the style they were trained by television to expect. About Schmidt is a remarkable film about The Ignored that tells their own story in a powerful, serious way. It may never achieve the box office success of Greek Wedding, which is too bad. For the first time in fifty years, there's actually a good film about a Mythic Cinema Hero.