This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 03 June 2003
|New Line Home Entertainment
||Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Howard Hesseman, Harry Groener, Connie Ray, Len Cariou
||Four and a half stars
Some people are confounded by the question of whether Alexander Payne's
wry, melancholy "About Schmidt" is a comedy or a drama. Star Jack
Nicholson thinks of it as a comedy, but it's as sad and wistful as it
is funny. And it's a terrific movie, one of the best of last year,
featuring Nicholson's Oscar-nominated performance, among his very best.
He's Warren R. Schmidt, whom we meet just as his office clock is
ticking down to his last day on his longtime job as an insurance
actuary in Omaha, Nebraska. All of his lifetime notes and files have
been neatly packed in cartons, his desk is clear, and there's nothing
left that's personal. But we eventually realize that's also true of
Schmidt's entire life: like many of us do, he's drifted through life
doing his daily work, and just passing time afterward and on weekends.
It's all been uncomplicated and gradual, but he's really never lived.
He learns this -- but not what to do about it -- over the first few
weeks after he retires.
His wife (June Squibb) of 42 years has convinced Schmidt to buy a
colossal Winnebago, a 35-foot land yacht, which she hopes to live in
while traveling around the country in their twilight years. We learn
that Schmidt has been somewhat tight-fisted about money, but not
ruinously so, and that he has lived under his wife's rules, accepting
it as natural that he sits down to urinate. He just hasn't thought very
much about very much at all.
He evidently had some hopes of still being useful to his business,
giving pointers to the young man who replaced him, but soon learns that
no one really needs him. As he leaves the his former office, there's a
brief, poignant/funny scene when he notices that all his
carefully-packed files are headed for the garbage.
He lounges about during the day, aimlessly channel-surfing, until his
attention, such as it is, is caught by a public service announcement
about Childreach, an organization that provides care for children in
undeveloped countries. Mostly because he doesn't have much else to do,
and can afford it (he seems to be reasonably well off), he does sponsor
a child. The rest of the movie is narrated by means of the letters,
often filled with anger and bitterness -- they're his only outlet -- to
the boy in Tanzania. "Dear Ndugu," they always begin. At first, we
learn how very bored with his life and his wife he has become, but
later the letters are suffused with a sense of hope and mild
His life is gradually forming a new, uneventful shape when to his
surprise (and our shock), he discovers his wife dead in the kitchen.
Their daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) shows up from Denver with her
friendly jerk of a fiancé, Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney, who's
brilliant at being slight). Jeannie and Randall stay on a few days to
help Schmidt get his feet under him. Randall thoughtlessly interrupts
Schmidt to try to get him in on a financial deal that he swears is not
a pyramid scheme (which means it is). Schmidt, never fond of Randall,
becomes anxious about Jeannie actually marrying this doofus (who wears
a goatee and a modified mullet) -- the ceremony is in just a few weeks
-- but Jeannie won't listen. "He's not up to snuff," he protests, "he's
not in your league." But he offers no particulars. Her father has never
paid much attention to her, and she isn't interested in his starting
When sorting through his wife's things, to his horror Schmidt finds
some very old love letters between his wife and his best friend (and
co-worker), Ray (Len Cariou). A kind of flailing confrontation leads to
nothing. Schmidt tries to go about his daily life, but despite the
optimism he expresses in his letters to Ndugu, the house has become
messy, and in an act of mild assertion, he begins pissing standing up.
Pissing all over the bathroom, in fact.
One night, he suddenly awakens, packs the Winnebago, and heads for
Denver. But when he phones Jeannie, she's firm: she does not want him
to show up there until just before the wedding. So Schmidt tours the
Midwest, stopping at tourist attractions. He visits the site of his
boyhood home to find it's now a tire store; he enjoys visiting his old
college fraternity, but the current members might have other reactions.
And he thinks a lot -- thoughts that leave him filled with stern but
He finally arrives in Denver, horrified to discover that Randall's
boyhood home is a junky mess outside, and a vulgar mess inside.
Furthermore, Randall's free-spirited mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates,
who's terrific), is just too damned interested in Schmidt for his
comfort. She's also too open; moments after Schmidt arrives, she says
"when I had my hyterectomy" and "when I breast-fed Randall;" she also
goes on at length to her embarrassed guest about the sex life of
Randall and Jeannie. After a funny confrontation in a hot tub --
Roberta climbs in nude (bravo Kathy Bates) -- he takes to spending his
nights in his Winnebago. He tries to have another talk with Jeannie,
but it doesn't go any better -- and then there's the wedding....
In recent years, Alexander Payne has shown himself to be one of the
great observers of the social ways of the American midwest, in "Citizen
Ruth" and in "Election." His comedies take an affectionate but
satirical look at those who are driven by goals that they don't clearly
understand. The same is true of "About Schmidt," which Payne co-wrote
with Jim Taylor (from Louis Begley's novel), for despite his occasional
announcements (in the letters) that he knows exactly what he needs to
do for the rest of his life, he clearly is lost and lonely. "Life is
short, Ndugu," he writes, "and I can't waste another minute." The only
person he regarded as a friend turns out to be his wife's (long-ago)
lover, and he can't even begin a discussion with his daughter. He's
frightened by his own desires, but equally frightened by the desires of
others. Schmidt is a sad and wistful man, made increasingly depressed
by his dawning realization that he's lived a life without any impact on
anyone else at all.
Nicholson is nothing less than brilliant as poor old Schmidt. His face
is set in weary lines (his lips are constantly compressed), he rarely
laughs, he rarely smiles. He's in his mid-sixties, and looks every day
of it. But Nicholson still allows a little glimmer of life to show
every now and then through Schmidt's all-too-settled exterior. And it's
at those moments that he powerfully engages our emotions. Nicholson has
said that 80% of every character and actor plays is the actor
him/herself -- but he's gone far beyond the 20% left for the art here.
It's a great performance, nothing less, in a year (2002) that was
surprisingly crowded with outstanding films and exceptional acting.
The movie takes its cues from the weather, which is mild but wintry.
The trees are bare, it occasionally rains, and it's fairly cold. Omaha
looks almost as bleak and desolate as the plains around it, but Schmidt
passes through all this without ever reacting to it. He visits various
tourist sights more out of a sense of obligation -- people built these
to be seen, so he should see them -- and buys Hummel figurines only
because his wife admired them. Even in casual purchases he's still
under her influence.
The cinematography by James Glennon is mostly in grays, browns and
tans, and it's rarely beautiful. But, not to be pompous, the landscape
is really the soul of Warren R. Schmidt, who at the very end, in a
deeply touching and poignant scene, he learns that maybe he did have an
effect on someone else after all. For a film that seems mostly ironic
and wry, the ending is almost a sunburst of hope for poor old Schmidt.
And for us as well. But all the way through, we feel strongly for
Schmidt, even when he's being coarse, intrusive or nuance-blind. His
life may have been dull, but by most standards, it's been satisfactory;
Payne is not inviting us to laugh at what Schmidt has (or has not)
been, but merely to smile at and be moved by his reactions to the
direction of his life now. I've rarely seen a recent movie that touched
me so much.
This is exactly the kind of DVD that one would expect -- and in this
case hope -- to come equipped with a commentary track by, at least, the
director. (I myself long for one by Nicholson, who's never done this.)
But the extras are very skimpy, though one of them is surprising -- an
unusual, and unusually creative little group of shorts. He asked two
associates, Radan Popovic and Kaile Schilling, to shoot location
footage in Omaha, emphasizing the Woodmen Tower (where the insurance
company is located). The resulting footage was given to several staff
members of the editorial office, who created a group of films of wildly
varying intent, some of which are included on the disc. (For example,
one is melancholy; the other is a title sequence for a bizarre
superhero film, "The Wood Men!")
There are also nine deleted scenes, which Payne introduces with very
informative material, explaining what the intent of the scene was, and
why (and often when) it was removed. Each begins with footage actually
in the film to show where the deleted scene would have gone. This is
very effective and very interesting; it would be great if other
directors took note of just how Payne did this.
"About Schmidt" was one of the best films of last year, and this
well-produced DVD is an ideal way to take it home with you.
||deleted scenes, a group of odd shorts, and theatrical trailer, plus choice of subtitles, English and Spanish
||email us here...
||36-Inch Sony XBR