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Omaha has no beef about role in ‘Schmidt’

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OMAHA, Neb. — If New York is the Big Apple and Paris the City of Light, then Omaha is the home of the easy punch line.

Although natives call it "the Big O" without a trace of irony or double entendre, the mere mention of the Nebraska cattle town provokes snickers from the more worldly residents of either coast.

And, as a native, I can tell you there is something comical about the place. Known for its meat-packing industry, the city dubbed its National Indoor Football League team the Omaha Beef. When stumped for a name for the local horse racing track (now closed), the city called it Ak-Sar-Ben, Nebraska spelled backward.

Omahans have always endured ribbing about their bland hometown with the same good-natured humor they approach most everything else. But now natives have a reason to lift up their chins and puff out their chests. Or so they think.

The new movie "About Schmidt," which stars Jack Nicholson, was filmed in Omaha, and the city is featured prominently throughout. Nicholson plays a retired actuary who sets out on a quest for self-knowledge after the death of his wife.

The film was directed by a hometown-boy-made-good, Alexander Payne, who has now set three movies in Omaha ("Citizen Ruth" and "Election" were the first two).

Several locals had bit parts in "Schmidt," and most everyone has a story of a "Jack sighting."

For a town not known for excitement or glamour, this was a big deal.

In a news story about the film's premiere, a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald gushed that the movie granted the city a "cultural legitimacy" it had lacked.

"It's as if, at least for the duration of the film, life in Omaha is just as good, just as important, as life in L.A. or New York City," the reporter raved.

But despite the enthusiasm of the natives, the images of Omaha in "Schmidt" probably won't make the next Chamber of Commerce video.

Nicholson plays a shuffling loser, a man frustrated by the passage of time and his lack of accomplishment in the world. He subscribes to the weird Midwestern code of values that places the appearance of cheery optimism above all else.

Schmidt is so clouded by self-delusion that he can't even portray his life accurately to a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy he decides to sponsor after seeing a TV ad.

The city fares little better. In a profile of Payne in the New York Times Magazine, the director's vision of Omaha is described as "startlingly, painfully specific: an empty city of watery blues and grays, the blank spot at the center of the map."

Omahans didn't seem to notice. In a town where people wear hats shaped like corncobs on University of Nebraska game days, the standard for excitement is, well, lower.

It may be only a Dairy Queen up there on the silver screen. But it's Omaha's Dairy Queen.

"We're from a smaller city that doesn't get a lot of attention, and seeing scenes and places we recognize, it makes us feel like, 'Hey, everybody's looking at us,' " said Thomas Kuhlman, an English professor at Omaha's Creighton University.

I can relate. Although I've shed some of my Nebraska naivete since leaving, I'm still excited to see the movie and spot the landmarks of my youth.

If you didn't grow up among people who still consider being called "square" a compliment, you might not understand.

"Schmidt" was recently nominated for five Golden Globe awards, including best dramatic picture and best actor for Nicholson. The Oscar buzz is humming, and the national media has started to invade my hometown, putting the spotlight on old friends and neighbors.

I'm happy for them. I just hope they leave their corncob hats at home.