Director : Alexander Payne
Screenplay : Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor (based on the novel by Louis Begley)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Jack Nicholson (Warren Schmidt), Kathy Bates (Roberta Hertzel), Hope Davis (Jeannie Schmidt), Dermot Mulroney (Randall Hertzel), June Squibb (Helen Schmidt), Howard Hesseman (Larry Hertzel), Len Cariou (Ray Nichols), Harry Groener (John), Connie Ray (Vicki Rusk)
Some people have been describing About Schmidt as a black comedy, and while it does have its share of darkly comedic moments, overall it is an earnest existential drama about a 67-year-old man trying to come to grips with the meaninglessness of his life. I suspect that people want to view it as a black comedy because it was directed by Alexander Payne and cowritten by Payne and Jim Taylor, the duo who made the scathingly cynical black comedies Citizen Ruth (1996), which skewered both sides of the abortion debate, and Election (1999), which is both a hilariously crass teen satire and a parody of American democracy.
Despite its setting beginning in Omaha, Nebraska, the city in which Payne was born and in which he has set his previous films, About Schmidt has little in common with them tonally or thematically. Payne is not a filmmaker for whom earnest is a natural fit. Yet, he takes on the heavy-handed themes inherent in a story like this one and makes it work quite well, mostly due to a phenomenal central performance by Jack Nicholson.
Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, who for most of his life has worked as an assistant vice-president and actuary for a large Nebraska insurance company. The opening scene in the film finds him in his newly cleaned-out office, watching the clock intently as it clicks second-by-second to five o'clock and the end of his career. The look on his face is one of bewilderment, as if he can't believe that this era of his life is coming to end and that he has no idea where to go from here. A retirement dinner at a steak house complete with toasts and commendations can't dull Warren's sour attitude—he is a lost man.
We learn about him through voice-over narration as he writes amusingly candid letters to a six-year-old Tanzanian boy whom he sponsors. Mostly, he writes about how much he dislikes his life, including his 42-year marriage to his wife, Helen (June Squibb), who was probably once a vibrant woman but has now settled comfortably into the ruts of old age, the patterns of which irritate Warren to no end ("I hate the way she takes out her car keys long before we get to the car," he writes at one point).
But, as the tired saying goes, you don't know what you got till it's gone, and mere days after his retirement, Warren finds Helen dead on the kitchen floor. Having now lost both his career and his wife, Warren is completely cut adrift in life, with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to grab onto to. The one thing he settles on is his only daughter, a somewhat homely girl named Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is in her 30s and lives in Denver. She is engaged to a mullet-headed schlub named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), who, according to Warren, isn't "up to snuff." It's not that Randall is a bad person—in fact, he's courteous, polite, really quite decent and well-meaning. Yet, it's hard to get around the fact that he is, to use Warren's terminology again, a "nincompoop," one of those guys who, as a kid, only got ribbons for being a participant and grew up to be waterbed salesman easily swayed into get-rich-quick pyramid schemes.
So, Warren decides to head out to Denver in the 35-foot Winnebago he and Helen bought for their retirement years and stop the wedding. Up until this point, About Schmidt has moved slowly and steadily, its reluctant narrative pacing matching the inertness of Warren's life. It makes for slow going, but you can see why Payne, whose others films were vibrant and visually mischievous, chose to go this route. About Schmidt is all internal—there is little in the way of external dramatic conflict to drive the story, so the narrative tends to reflect Warren's moods. Once he gets to Denver and finds himself embroiled in Randall's family, particularly Randall's large, unorthodox, and completely uninhibited mother (played in a grand, scene-stealing supporting turn by Kathy Bates), the film gets a new lease on life.
But, what really keeps the film interesting and intriguing is the presence of Jack Nicholson. Known primarily for his flamboyant, devilish roles, Nicholson does a complete about-face, portraying a deeply sad man at a loss in life. That malevolent glint that usually characterizes Nicholson's well-worn visage is completely disguised behind a downtrodden demeanor. Even when Warren tries to take the bull by the horns and control his fate, his actions are desperate and almost pathetic. Nicholson has some fine comedic moments, as well, particularly in his reactions to Randall's family (watch his eyes when Randall's mother decides to join him in the hot tub—completely naked), whom he finds simply repulsive. Yet, one look at Warren and his bad comb-over and sagging body reminds us that he's no prize trophy himself, which makes his disdain amusing, rather than off-putting.
Those expecting the cynicism of Election are bound to be disappointed by About Schmidt, which ultimately winds its way to a heartfelt conclusion that possibly answers the question of whether or not Warren's life has meant anything. Some may find this ending a bit too easy and reductive—a nice finishing touch on a slight short story, maybe. Yet, the way Nicholson plays it and the way Payne trusts his actor to do all the work with a long-held close-up makes it a pay-off worth getting to, one that is as moving as it is simple.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick