BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – Flanked by a trio of the freshest young actors in contemporary film, Jack Nicholson seems to relish his status as Hollywood’s resident lovable rogue.
Since his heyday as counterculture radical in landmark movies such as “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nicholson has lived a high-profile playboy’s life and settled into a kind of elder rebel-emeritus status on screen, burnished by the patina of his bad-boy past and his three acting Oscars.
If there’s a mischievous twinkle in his eyes when he talks about his latest role as a “cuddly shark” in writer-director James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know,” it is masked by his ubiquitous, signature shades. But when Nicholson talks about working again with Brooks or hanging out and acting with co-stars Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, there’s a weathered warmth in his voice that belies his hipster cool.
“It’s a privilege to work with Jim. He’s probably one of the best screenwriters in the world, and you just get great material and he can always cast wonderful actors. Just look at us all,” Nicholson said, gesturing grandly to his young co-stars during a press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park hosted by Columbia Pictures.
With Brooks on one side and Witherspoon, Wilson and Rudd on the other, Nicholson held court in a sense as he talked about Brooks’ new romantic comedy. In it, he plays a deeply flawed father and sharky business mogul trying to balance his love for his son with his instincts for self-preservation. Nicholson’s bond with Brooks goes way back to his Oscar-winning performances in “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets,” sandwiched between a memorable turn in “Broadcast News.” (Nicholson’s other Oscar, his first, came for Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1976.)
In “How Do You Know,” Nicholson is essentially in a supporting role – but one that fits him like a tailored suit. He plays Charles, an oily industrialist whose company is under federal investigation for fraud. Unfortunately, blame for Charles’ shady shenanigans falls on his decent but clueless son, George (Rudd), who recently took the corporate reins. As George’s life is falling apart, he stumbles into a romantic triangle with Witherspoon’s Lisa, an Olympic softball player in crisis at the end of her career, and Wilson’s Matty, a playboy pitcher for the Washington Nationals.
For his part, Nicholson’s charmingly caddish Charles occupies a subplot in which he hopes to help his son out of his legal jam while avoiding a lengthy, and well-deserved, prison sentence for himself.
“There are always different things that make parts difficult,” Nicholson said of his raffish character. “I’ve played a lot of bad or semi-bad people and you always have to be on the character’s side. I didn’t have any problem analyzing this character. It wasn’t really the tough part of it for me. I liked playing the father even though he’s not a great father, but I think you can see that he really does care even though he chooses business over his own son. He really didn’t think that he was doing that much wrong. I was a little worried about that myself since I feel like I am a loveable shark. Those are the kinds of things that you have to finesse.”
Brooks said he wrote the character as a personification of a certain kind of predator afoot in America’s financial jungles.
“Everything that’s been going on (in the economy) has been an attack on our personhoods. That shark that you’re talking about is representative of a certain kind of American businessman. I think he’s typical,” Brooks said.
“I am someone who’s obsessive about specifics and detail and I couldn’t pick a business to put up front,” the director continued. “Then I realized that Jack’s character is representative of the whole breed. And also, I realized that so much has gone wrong, and our trust has been eroded to such an extent by the absence of real role models anyplace in our lives, that the last holdout is people needing each other and holding hands and taking it on together. I sort of felt that when I wrote this.”
Nicholson, 73, said Brooks is the kind of director that makes him excited to keep making movies.
“With Jim you have to remember that he writes comedies like nobody else,” the actor said. “I mean, you’re dealing with life, death, business crime, fatherhood, motherhood, all these very serious topics and everything is funny at the same time. It has truth and it’s funny, but what he attacks to begin with is where it’s really distinct if you reviewed it – cancer, news, all this kind of thing. And I know it’s the goal he sets himself. He sets himself very interesting goals.
“Like, I remember the one that I particularly liked was in ‘As Good As It Gets.’ He says, ‘Number one, I want to write a part for the dog.’ He said, ‘I also want (the dog) to get a specific laugh based on language.’ So I mean he just picks out really hard things to do and then it’s supposed to look easy, kind of like Fred Astaire, but where he starts is always amazing to me.”
After a stellar career that has featured the above-mention films as well as era-defining movies such as “The Shining,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “A Few Good Men,” “The Departed” and “The Bucket List,” Nicholson said he really doesn’t have anything left to prove. So he picks the roles he does take on very carefully.
“I’m kind of a guy that likes to prove things and all my life when I’ve said, ‘I’m so sick of (working),” and everyone always said, ‘Oh, God, man. You couldn’t not work.’ Well, I’m kind of proving them wrong. I read a lot of scripts and so I feel like I do a lot of movies and stuff, but they’re all the same. I like not working. I know that’s hideous, blasphemous, but I really do. I think I’ve started to infect others, young guys. I had a conversation with Leo (DiCaprio) and he said, ‘I love not working.’ I said, ‘See what I mean?’ I don’t really want to infect him.”
So, what does he do when he’s not working?
“It’s a press conference and I like to give great answers, but I just like getting up sometimes between eleven and one,” he said hesitantly. “It’s not movie hours unless you’re doing night movies. I play golf. I have a couple of kids in college and so I’m on the phone a lot. I see my pals. Various women around. Talk to my congressman. Go to funerals.”
What about rooting for his beloved Los Angeles Lakers?
“That’s more of a job,” Nicholson said with that patented bad-boy grin. “I have to be there (at courtside).”
But what is it that he still loves about making movies?
“Travel. Beautiful women. Excellent compatriots. Drinking pals. It’s very exciting. It’s just an exciting business,” Nicholson said. “We’ve all been doing it a while. I think we all get nervous, we get wild and that should be all I say, I think.”