About Schmidt DVD
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Directed by Alexander Payne
Produced in 2002
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - American film
Alexander Payne’s follow-up to Election casts Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt, another to add to the long list of cinematic actuaries and insurance flunkies who’ve spent so much of their time taking the risk out of their clients’ lives that they’ve forgotten how to live themselves. As if his enforced retirement isn’t enough for him to have to deal with, the death of his wife of forty-two years leaves him utterly at a loss.
Consolation comes in the form of two projects which offer him hope he can belatedly make a difference in the world: firstly, he vows to sabotage his daughter’s wedding to the waterbed salesman he considers an idiot; secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, he sponsors a young Tanzanian boy in a Child Reach charity program, although the often very funny letters Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor provide Schmidt with hide the saddest of punchlines – that this man now has no other means of expressing himself.
This is a rare Nicholson performance where the raised eyebrow takes second place to the furrowed brow. I’m not sure he can entirely convince at this point in his career as an ordinary man – making him over to look a bit like Bob Monkhouse doesn’t quite cut it – but the material you come away from About Schmidt remembering is Nicholson doing dramatic rather than expressly funny, and character work more along the lines of The Pledge or The Crossing Guard than either Batman or The Witches Of Eastwick.
A closer touchstone might be the actor’s Oscar-winning turn as the misanthropic writer in As Good As It Gets, to which the role of Warren Schmidt provides an even darker side. Where that feel-good film concerned itself with the ways in which his sadsack recluse might get himself out of a rut, About Schmidt is about nothing if not the manner in which the Nicholson character would get into such a position in the first place. That first film was about growth, reaching out and connection; Payne’s is a film of decline, rejection and disconnection. (If nothing else, Nicholson deserved the Oscar on the grounds of symmetry alone.)
Even though he failed to land the award, About Schmidt – and its lead’s performance – remain fascinating viewing: forever looking around (and, indeed, About) the generally empty frames Payne isolates him in, Nicholson gets across enough of the sense of a man – and an actor – trying to figure out what to do with himself. As you might imagine, the film’s first hour is bleak, but it’s brilliantly and coruscatingly bleak, a vision of modern life that’s rarely seen in the American mainstream and closer, if anything, to the absolute, terminal deadpan of British television comedy like The Office: a cruel, brave, unsparing worldview that develops beyond the flimsy, sneering nihilism expressed by a filmmaker like Todd Solondz and eventually emerges as something genuinely tragic and affecting.
As the film progresses, and Schmidt heads a little further down that road he’s travelling, the comedy gets slightly more aerated; by the time we arrive at the wedding, there’s been some familiar business with dysfunctional extended families. Kathy Bates is a neat character sketch as the groom’s boho mother, and there’s a slapstick routine with Jack on a waterbed; Payne even borrows one “you can never go home” joke from Grosse Pointe Blank, demonstrating impeccable taste.
About Schmidt marks an impressive maturing of style, a good step forward for this director and his team: the film is deftly written, pointedly scored by Rolfe Kent, and Payne hits his cues for chuckles and sobs with an unerring precision. The great triumph of About Schmidt, though, is that there are plenty more of the latter than there are of the former.
Mike McCahill on 5th August 2003
Author of 215 reviews
Warren Schmidt is forced to deal with his ambiguous future as he enters retirement. Soon after, his wife passes away and he has to come to terms with his daughter's marriage to a man he hates and the failure that he feels his life has become. Jack Nicholson is excellent as the deadpan Schmidt, tragic and comic in equal measure.
Publisher: Entertainment in Video
Length: 120 mins
Cat No: EDV9154
Format: DVD Colour