Dear Ndugu—I mean, Sarah and Roger and Tony,
I'll let Tony speak up for Storytelling, which seemed to me at best a great sick joke and at worst (more often) an ugly and feeble one. But you needn't have gone to Gogol for examples of grotesquerie. You could have looked at Payne's own marvelous Citizen Ruth, which has a rollicking parade of stereotypes and caricatures. I didn't mind that in that case, however, because the movie has a neat farce structure and keeps a lot of balls in the air. In AboutSchmidt the tone is a little more searching and the themes more ambitious, and I expected a different kind of characterization—one in which the characters (even the dull-witted characters) were at least allowed to present themselves in the best possible light. "Tough comic inspection" involves something more than Kathy Bates eviscerating her ex-husband, extolling the virtues of her cretinous son, then climbing naked into a hot tub and coming on to our protagonist. And while I concede your point about Hope Davis (there are flashes of something more in the role), the movie needed a better, more climactic scene between father and daughter—a scene in which she made her perspective on him compelling enough to take us for a stretch out of his head. And what would a woman like that ever see in Dermot Mulroney's character? (Let me say for the record that I liked About Schmidt well enough and look forward to seeing it again. And I can't wait for Payne's next movie.)
You asked whether the women in Lovely & Amazing were meant to be representative or nut cases—and wondered why, in the latter case, you'd want to spend time in their company. I'm sympathetic because my wife had the same response, and I agree that they are not fully realized. But I found what was there to be tantalizing, and the movie a fascinating case study of three sisters (one of them adopted and radically different) not getting what they need from their parents and acting out in startling and individual ways. (I didn't mind spending time in Igby's company for much the same reasons.)
Let me add in relation to Tony's point that I love that movies are finally "foregrounding" women's needs over men's—although there is a bit of a PC double standard here. When a mother in The Hours announces that her choice was leaving her husband and children or dying, we are meant to feel sympathy for her no-win spiritual predicament. (Ibsen's A Doll House is still with us.) A man making the same declaration would be regarded, justly I think, as a monstrous narcissist and a coward. I like how Rebecca Miller handles Parker Posey's implacably selfish character in Personal Velocity better. (I haven't made up my mind if Unfaithful fits in here because I think this film about a woman's sexual rapture outside her marriage was made with a male gaze. Anyone disagree?)
Thanks for making the point twice about music. We are in a golden age of composing, with a lot of the best orchestral writing showing up in movies. (The great composers often wrote incidental music for plays. Does anyone doubt that today they would be writing for film?) In addition to John Williams' most resourceful score in decades (although I think his work was fascinating in A.I., too), the year has given us first-rate scores by the likes of Eliot Goldenthal, Carter Burwell, and the great Jerry Goldsmith. I loved James Newton Howard's main title for Signs. One reason I think that Philip Glass' music for The Hours stands out is that a distractingly bad score is pretty rare these days.