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About Schmidt

Directed by Alexander Payne
Produced by Harry Gittes, Michael Besman
Written by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Distributed by New Line Cinema

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davies, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, Kathy Bates

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is a healthy but exhausted 66-year-old retiring from his job as an insurance executive. At his retirement dinner, Warren is told by a colleague that if a man works hard and provides for his family, he can look back on his life with satisfaction. This is the very premise that the film, through its eponymous central character who is, unsurprisingly, the moral centre of the film, doubts. Then his doting but dim wife of forty-two years passes away, and his ‘past her prime’ daughter Jeannie (Davis) announces that she is about to marry a self-help mantra spouting waterbed salesman (Mulroney). So Warren takes off across the heartland in the Winnebago tourer he’d bought to enjoy retirement in with the wife who is no longer around, taking a leisurely route to the wedding, but encountering en route various examples of the detritus of the American way. Meanwhile, he starts sponsoring an impoverished Tanzanian boy for 73 cents a day, sharing his observations in therapeutic letters.




Having enjoyed both Citizen Ruth and Election, it’s surprising to find that writer/director Payne’s latest attempt at satire falls short of impressing, especially when it is a star vehicle for someone who is so capable of delivering. As a long-time Nicholson fan, he only has to do that trademark wall-eyed stare and raise those bushy eyebrows incredulously to crack me up, so it is a brave move that here he is so obviously cast against type. However, unlike the other recent ‘sensitive’ Nicholson movie, As Good As It Gets, this one is bereft of any redeeming humour, quirky or otherwise.

It’s not like there aren’t good things about About Schmidt. It is a film that dares to say it’s all a lie, that old age is a time not of insight but confusion, that love doesn’t grow but gets stale, evolving into vague contempt, that having a child is no comfort, and even taking off down the road – that great American standby – offers nothing in the way of self-discovery or solace. Kathy Bates, as the randy, ex-hippie mother of Schmidt’s future son-in-law, is the closest the movie comes to comedy, giving our hero another wacko to endure, but it’s all a bit predictable, an excuse for the ‘sophisticates like ourselves’ to conspire in laughing at, rather than with, the hicks from the sticks, and so have our prejudices massaged and confirmed.

Worse, About Schmidt is irony for middle America, and while it may be big news to be introducing the concept to the denizens of the broad vowel states (Iowa, Idaho, Omaha, Nebraska) of the Mid-West (a notoriously irony-free zone) it isn’t telling the rest of us, particularly this side of the pond, anything we didn’t know already.

Of course, it can be argued that it is largely a matter of individual temperament and experience, whether or not people think that life is beautiful, or decide that it’s all a waste of time, and adopt their viewpoint as a worldview. The tragic sense of life versus the comic, with both teetering uncomfortably on the edge of farce. The trouble with About Schmidt is that it thinks it’s saying something profound, but is ultimately just as banal as the lives of the characters it represents, in a way that the pitch-perfect Far From Heaven by the excellent Todd Haynes, or the testing-the-limits-of-irony Adaptation by the ridiculously inventive Charlie Kaufman, never descend to.













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