January 5, 2009

About Schmidt (2002)

Filmmaker Alexander Payne has turned to his native Omaha, Nebraska for some of his biggest pre-Sideways films (Citizen Ruth, Election). And the city’s flat, broad, bland landscape is the perfect setting and metaphor for Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a newly retired insurance professional who – in the opening scene of Payne’s endearing About Schmidt – literally watches the clock tick on the last second of his career before leaving his already-boxed-up office for good.

We then follow Schmidt through the immediate stages of retirement: a farewell dinner, time-filling hobbies, mid-morning errand runs, etc. He must also deal with the impending marriage of his Colorado-based daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to underachieving waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Filling out Schmidt’s time is his decision to adopt an underprivileged orphan in Tanzania (the scene where Warren sees his orphan’s name, Ndugu, in his adoption kit is quietly humorous).

After the sudden death of his wife, Warren evaluates his life via letters he writes to Ndugu and the discovery of an old affair between his wife and best friend. He decides to hit the road in a newly purchased RV. The destination: his daughter’s wedding in Denver. Along the way he meets a whitebread couple doing their own RV trek, visits his college alma mater, and sees various sights you probably wouldn’t recognize unless you live in the heartland.

Fans of Nicholson may have initial concerns over such an expressive actor playing as subdued a role as Schmidt. But that’s the beauty of his performance: As the film progresses, Nicholson pulls us into Warren’s world so well that viewers won’t even notice (or remember) their initial reservations about him playing against type.

In terms of the supporting cast:
• Mulroney is cringe-inducingly memorable as Davis’ fiancé – the kind of small-town loser who you hope won’t corner you at a party with his get-rich-quick schemes (one of which appears in the film).
• Davis, meanwhile, plays Jeannie largely in reactionary bursts of anger and frustration towards Warren that, while largely justified, doesn’t earn her character any points with an audience that is slowly warming up to her flawed on-screen father.
Kathy Bates appears late in the film as Randall’s mother, adding a little spark that Payne probably thought necessary to see viewers through to the end. No harm, no foul, though her nude hot tub scene may be one of the more talked-about disrobings in recent movie history.

Some viewers of About Schmidt may ask where all the “action” is, feeling that Payne is just taking us on a sprawling, mundane trip. But that’s the point: We’re watching an average man, who has lived an average life, embark on a relatively tame cross-country trek (an incident with the whitebread wife aside). No greater conflict arises than whether or not his daughter is marrying a putz. And when it’s all over, it felt good being along for the ride.

About Schmidt is (and should be) all about Warren P. Schmidt. We witness a man who lived his entire adult life selling insurance (arguably the ultimate symbol of a mediocre, unmemorable career) and married to a softly oppressive wife. He can’t connect with his daughter, but he can open up to a 6-year-old boy he’s never met who lives on another continent. In a letter to Ndugu, Schmidt displays the rhetoric we all feel at some point in our lives – hoping that somehow, in some way, somebody will actually answer with affirmations:

“Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn't matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
Even if you offer About Schmidt to your kids despite its R rating (for nudity, language, and the good ol’ “adult situations”), the film’s length and pacing may be too much to ask kids or tweens to sit through. Older teens, however, may find themselves satisfied if invited to watch.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Is she’s interested in dramas focusing on a strained or quirky family dynamic, she should enjoy About Schmidt. Like I said at the beginning of this review, the film is an endearing character study, one that ultimately finds a place in your heart. And the final scene should leave her misty, if not in tears.

About Schmidt
* Director: Alexander Payne
* Screenwriter: Alexander Payne
* Stars: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, Kathy Bates
* MPAA Rating: R (nudity, language, adult situations)

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>


Kathy B. said...

My favorite scene from this movie was when he went into his bathroom after his wife died and...... well you know!!!
Funny thing though although I was positively guffawing in my seat the semi full theatre of primarily Q-tips were not laughing at all. I'm guess all/most of those wives must make their husbands sit!!!
Thanks for another great review.

FilmFather said...

@Kathy B.: I totally forgot about that "position" his wife makes him do in the loo! I'm not asked to do it, but I can see some days, a man is just so lazy or tired he doesn't feel like standing to pee.

BTW, I had to Google "Q-tip" to see what/who you were talking about. I found it at UrbanDictionary.com. Love it; my new favorite slang word. Way to be hip!

Gemma said...

Loved this review! A must-see for FilmGrandfather and me!


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