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About Schmidt Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 June 2003

About Schmidt

New Line Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Howard Hesseman, Harry Groener, Connie Ray, Len Cariou
release year: 2002
film rating: Four and a half stars
sound/picture: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

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 determination.

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 now.

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 aimless resolve.

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.

more details
special features: deleted scenes, a group of odd shorts, and theatrical trailer, plus choice of subtitles, English and Spanish
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-Inch Sony XBR

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