Sunday, June 25, 2017

Hanging on in Quiet Desperation

Films: About Schmidt
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

About Schmidt has been sitting on my shelf for several years, picked up at a garage sale or library sale, or something like that. The box is covered with half-removed stickers from three or four different places. I got it only because it was something I knew I’d have to watch eventually, and it’s always a good thing to make the process a little easier whenever I can. Seriously, it feels like I spend almost as much time looking for movies as I do watching them, so even one that is relatively easy to find that no longer needs to be found is a good thing.

This is an Alexander Payne film, and I’ve liked or at least appreciated all of the Payne films I’ve seen to this point. In that respect, I had solid expectations. It’s also a movie that star Jack Nicholson, and that’s worth mentioning at the top. I have said multiple times in the past that I really enjoy it when an actor plays against his or her type. Watching Tom Cruise or Albert Brooks play a villain (Collateral and Drive respectively) is something I find endlessly interesting. And that’s the case with Nicholson here. We’ll get to that by the end, since it’s Nicholson’s performance that caused me to watch.

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) retires from his life-long job as an actuary for an Omaha-based insurance company as the film begins. He wakes up the morning after his retirement dinner and realizes that he doesn’t know what to do with his life or really even who he is. He finds that he resents just about everything his wife Helen (June Squibb) does. His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is about to be married to a waterbed salesman named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney) of whom Schmidt has a low opinion. One day on a whim he decides to sponsor a third-world child, and when the packet of information arrives, he accompanies his monthly check with a long, rambling letter about his life.

These letters will become a theme through the film. As Warren Schmidt goes through his retirement, he finds that letters to his foster child in Africa become an outlet for his frustration and loneliness, something that increases exponentially when Helen dies suddenly from a blood clot in her brain. Now adrift, Schmidt finds no real meaning or purpose to his life. He’s not wanted back at his old office and discovers that his carefully boxed files and research have been moved out to the dumpster to be carted away.

Thus, much of the movie is Warren’s search for meaning. There’s an important distinction here in what he’s looking for. He’s not specifically looking for a meaning to give his life. He’s looking instead for the meaning that his life may have had, and he’s having trouble finding it. With nothing better to do with his time, he sets off in the Winnebago he and Helen purchased, heading to Denver for Jeannie’s wedding several weeks before the event despite Jeannie wanting him to stay home until the ceremony and also despite his vast misgivings over the marriage in the first place.

So were does About Schmidt place tonally? It’s tragi-comic and also firmly rooted in absurdism, the sort of film that Luis Bunuel would make if he’d been born half a century later. Up to this point in his life, Schmidt had never considered meaning or purpose to his life or really much of anything beyond what was right in front of him. There was his job and there was his marriage, and there was his daughter, and all of those things slipped away from him without him really noticing that they had until one day he realized he was adrift and without purpose.

In that respect, this is an existentialist tragedy, a man who has realized that his life has been lived for nothing and to no purpose. And yet there is a good deal of humor here. It’s black comedy to be sure, but comedy just the same.

And that brings me to Jack Nicholson, who made not just his career but his entire public persona based on the idea that he was an outsider and a rebel. Over and over again, his most interesting roles place him as a person who shakes up the mainstream or simply walks outside of it, not always rebelling purposefully, but often simply forging his own path by his own force of will. Warren Schmidt is the opposite in a lot of ways. This is a man who spent his entire life coloring within the lines only to discover that it’s gotten him nothing that he can really call his own, not even ownership of his own soul.

Kathy Bates, who plays Randall’s mother Roberta was also nominated (in a supporting role in her case), and is a nearly perfect counterpoint to Warren Schmidt. Roberta is very much her own person, doing whatever she wants and living a Bohemian lifestyle because that’s what she wants to do. Bates is almost always a joy and she is here, too. I also love the casting of Howard Hesseman as her ex-husband Larry, but that’s at least in part because I generally like Howard Hesseman.

There’s a poignancy to the film that is masked by the extreme nature of Warren’s tribulations. That extreme nature—nothing beyond the realm of believability but sort of a constant, mid-grade craziness—is necessary to highlight the entire point of the film. Warren’s existential crisis is real, and that is something worth considering. What is the man worth, and what has the man accomplished worth accomplishing? Farce highlights that, and if the film bleeds a little too far over the line, well, excess in this case is a victimless crime.

Why to watch About Schmidt: These are questions that most of us will face someday.
Why not to watch: The dip into farce is necessary, but a bit extreme.


  1. I haven't seen this film in years, but what impressed me seems to be the same thing that impressed you. My own take was that it was incredible to watch the normally scenery-chewing Nicholson show as much restraint as he did, especially in that scene near the end where he's given the microphone and has a chance to say a few choice words at his daughter's wedding. That moment in particular was amazing to me (and it kind of made me wish we could get Pacino to do the same thing once in a while... though he sort of does, at times, in his version of "The Merchant of Venice").

    By the way, different topic: I just saw "The Raid: Redemption" per your long-ago suggestion. Went back and read your review... there's little I can add to it (although I'm going to try). The comments to that review also made some very good points.

    1. Nicholson, every now and then, needs to prove that he can actually act, which is what he does here. I think it's easy for him to just play Jack Nicholson, and when he doesn't it's surprising at how good he can really be.

      Glad you seemed to like The Raid. I think it's a quintessential action movie. Now you need to see Dredd, which is basically the same thing with guns.

    2. Yeah, I saw and reviewed "Dredd." And that resemblance is going to occupy a goodly part of my review.

    3. Yeah, I think I remember that you had. That's sort of my standard response to someone telling me they'd seen either of these two movies, since they form a sort of natural pair.

  2. Very well written! Maybe this one isn't overly deep, but it certainly contains enough food for thought to satisfy this aging grumpster.

    1. That seems about right. As I approach another birthday that ends in a "0," I seem to have these thoughts more and more.

  3. Nice review here. This is still my favorite Payne movie. I don't know, there's just something about it I've always been drawn to. I hear you on the farce, it does push a little too hard at times. But I still love this dang thing.

    1. There's a lot to love here, really. I expected to appreciate it. I'm not sure I expected to really like it, but I did.

  4. Yep, Nicholson does a good job of playing against type, and it's his flaws and soul-searching that gives the film some of it's emotion. When I saw it in the cinema I was sat with a group of older people who were surprised to see me join them, but I still found the film very moving despite much younger than the main character.

    For me, Payne peaked with About Schmidt, Sideways and Election. When he stopped coll. with screenwriter Jim Taylor, my faith in his work(The Descendants, Nebraska) was shaken. Pleases me Taylor is back for Downsizing.