Louis Begley spoke before a screening of About Schmidt last night. An extremely genteel guy, he explained why he’s quite pleased with the film, even though it differs significantly from his novel. For Begley, “write what you know” means Schmidt (“known as Schmittie to one and all”) is an Upper East Side lawyer, recently retired to Bridgehampton, something, presumably, a vast majority of the screening audience knows well, too. Consistently for Alexander Payne, “film what you know” means a studied exploration of the middle of Middle America: Schmidt is an Omaha actuary whose retirement plans involve a Winnebago.
The only disappointment Begley voiced was the elimination of his saucy Puerto Rican waitress character who (brace yourself) teaches Schmidt to love again. Or, more precisely, she “teaches Schmittie the transformative power of sex. [audience titters] You laugh. It’s true. Maybe you’re just too young to understand.” But then he gamely allowed that Payne may have been poking fun at this idea with Kathy Bates’ hand-painted clothing-shedding hot-tubber. Um, yeah.
While I’ve heard it described as a comedy, the laughs were all at things that are quite real outside the culture capitals; if you’ve been there, or are honest about being from there, your laughter is slightly embarassed and at yourself. (I’m not talking about my own proto-mullet here.) Begley sounded a little resigned when he said he couldn’t see the future holding anything good for Payne’s Schmidt. As I did in September, I have disagree and side with Payne. If taken at the most superficial level, you could argue that Schmidt’s transformative experience at the end is a pretty meager reward for all that preceded it. Why, it’s practically a, um, a money shot. What it may be is the difference between sex and love.
[12/12 update: Alexander Payne will be on Studio 360 this weekend. AND he will be given the Work In Progress award by the MoMA Department of Film and Media next February. Stay tuned.]