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Exposure: Uneasy Rider

By: Dave ItzkoffDirector Alexander Payne drives Jack Nicholson over the edge inAbout Schmidt

“The depression of others is funny,” declares a characteristically chipper Alexander Payne. The 40-ish writer/director has proved this point in scathing comedies like Citizen Ruth and the marvelously misanthropic Election. And he doesn’t want anyone to feel guilty for laughing at the misfortunes of his sad-sack protagonists. “They’re just movies,” Payne says, standing in the New York City apartment of his writing partner, Jim Taylor. “The stories that I’ve told so far are about desolate lives. I’m just finding a cinematic expression for that.”

Still, it’s hard to know whether to burst into hysterical laughter or tears at his latest film, About Schmidt. Playing another of Payne’s miserably befuddled heroes, Jack Nicholson gives his most awkward and downright uncool performance ever as recently retired insurance actuary Warren Schmidt. When his wife dies unexpectedly, the directionless Schmidt embarks on a modest road trip, rediscovering the simple pleasures of sleeping outdoors and urinating standing up. But Payne cautions against interpreting Schmidt–which, like his previous films, was shot in and around his hometown of Omaha–as a wholesale satire of middle-American values. “People in Omaha read a lot and travel a lot because they have to, and it’s as culturally stimulating as any other city,” Payne says. Besides, he adds, “Who else is making movies in Omaha? Somebody’s got to do it.” Of course, not everyone has to rewrite Jurassic Park III, the only truly questionable credit on Payne’s otherwise immaculate résumé. “We were as surprised as you that we even got the phone call,” he confides. “They said they had all action and now they needed story, character, and humor. We gave them a new script, and then we saw the movie, and it’s all action. They took the rest out!”