film

Review: About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.

I’ve often said About Schmidt is an utterly forgettable movie, mostly because although I saw it in the theater in 2002 when it was released, I could remember almost nothing about it. There were a Winnebago and a naked Kathy Bates in a hot tub, but if a third plot element were the question in Final Jeopardy, I’d have gone home a loser. So in my review of (and catchup on) Alexander Payne’s directorial oeuvre, I was looking forward to this one because it seemed almost like seeing something new, while also not looking forward to it because I was pretty sure my not remembering it was precisely the correct response.

I was right on both expectations. By itself, it is a forgettable film, setting up some kind of emotional equation it never solves, like those reactions in tenth-grade chemistry you have to balance, connecting this oxygen atom to that hydrogen atom and making it all even out. Examined as part of Payne’s filmography, which was my intention this time, it’s a lot more interesting. Although plot-wise it has almost nothing in common with Election, the film Payne directed just before it, or Sideways, the film he directed just after, it has interesting thematic and film-making similarities.

Primary among them is Payne’s interest in representing his home state of Nebraska in a way that seems to be uniquely his. The opening shot is mimicry of the first moments in Citizen Kane: from a distance, across a vast, flat cityscape, we see a lone high-rise. Subsequent shots bring the building closer, seen from different angles but always with the tower occupying the same place in the frame, growing larger and larger, until we are inside the building and see a bored Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) at his empty desk, watching the second-hand of the clock tick off the final moments of his professional career. Omaha is no Xanadu, and Warren R. Schmidt is no Charles Foster Caine.

Matthew Broderick in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt all play small men living small lives, the first two in the middle, and the last near his end. We drop into Jim McAllister’s life just as he’s making his idiotic choices, into Miles Raymond’s sometime after, as he’s still dealing with the consequences, and into Warren Schmidt’s as he discovers that his mistakes were made long ago, without his being aware of them, as he earned professional success only to discover that a life’s work has amounted to nearly nothing. It’s a good idea, but I have difficulty understanding Payne’s intention. How am I meant to feel about Schmidt’s journey and destination, by the time this film concludes?
(spoilers in this paragraph only)

Schmidt expresses his concern about his daughter’s marriage, in a well-done scene with Hope Davis, where she says something like, “Oh, now you care about my decisions?” We don’t know exactly what’s come between her and her father, but it’s easy enough to imagine that it’s the stuff that happens to many of us in our own families. So far, so good. But then Schmidt offers a toast at the reception, at first a bit awkward, but then gracious and seemingly heartfelt. Are we supposed to take his words at face value? It’s difficult to tell whether he’s had a change of heart or is merely playing a part. Cut to the final scene, where he’s sitting home alone at his desk, certain that his life has amounted to nothing. He’s been writing letters to Ndugu, a young boy he’s sponsoring through one of those charities, and there is a letter from his teacher, telling him how much Ndugu has appreciated his gifts, along with one of Ndugu’s drawings, a crude representation of a man holding hands with a boy. Schmidt begins to sob, and the film is over.

Is this a moment of despair, or is it a moment of redemption? I could tolerate not knowing if there were evidence enough to support either conclusions, but there isn’t. I suppose the stronger case can be made for despair, but there’s been enough good interaction during Schmidt’s trip to imply that he’s got a lot of interesting living to do, if he decides to live it. Another possibility is that Schmidt is finally taking a moment to grieve properly, but I think he has his moment the night he sleeps on the roof of his RV, and our last image of him should be more positive.

Now that I’ve seen this film three times (once in the theater, twice on DVD) I’m much fonder of it than I once was, but it’s really no better a film. Seven years ago, when I first set up my Criticker account, I ranked it 66/100; I think 60 is more like it now.

6/10
60/100

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