Inevitably, the party’s interrupted by a succession of sweet, if forgettable, toasts. Warren smiles and nods along. But one really gets to him. It is delivered by Larry (Howard Hesseman), his oldest friend. In the speech, Larry goes on about how the party, the toasts, and the food are all meaningless; they’re expendable, things that will promptly be forgotten about. But one thing will stick out to Warren in his retirement. What will, and should, always be at the forefront of his mind in his days of leisure, is this idea that he has devoted almost the entirety of his adult life to an important cause: the Woodmen of the World Insurance Society. Such knowledge should keep him satisfied; he can enjoy his days of tranquility feeling as though he’s earned it. He’s given so much back to the world, after all.
To Larry’s audience, this is a worthy sentiment – Warren’s worked hard, and now he can celebrate it! But the toast has an entirely different effect on the latter: In this moment, his world comes crashing down. He reaches an epiphany: Almost every day of his life has been exactly the same.
Five days per week, he’s worked from 9 to 5, come back to his quaint two-story to a home-cooked meal, and watched television until falling asleep on the couch. He’s never had a passion, a hobby; he’s hardly even traveled. He’s lived in a bubble for almost 40 years. The only thing that's actually brought him joy has been his now-grown daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who’s disappointingly engaged to be married to a joke of a waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney, donning the worst coiffure-and-beard combo since Comic Book Guy).
So the moment he returns home from the dinner, Warren sinks into a deep depression. He think that maybe even his marriage is a sham; he’s just roommates with a woman whose every move drives him crazy. So what is his purpose? Desperate to uncover some sort of meaning, he even goes back to Woodmen fleetingly to see if the company needs any help tying up loose ends. But there, he finds that all his files have already been tossed out.
He temporarily finds meaning again when he falls victim to one of those ads that invites you to write letters and donate money to an orphan in a third-world country. The letters give him the opportunity to write to someone about what he’s been going through, and the money makes him feel like he’s really making a difference in someone’s life.
Then Helen dies.
And then Warren discovers that she'd been having an affair with Larry for years.
Naturally, his life's further blown off course. So he decides to leave for Jeannie’s upcoming wedding a couple weeks early, traveling across the states in the motor home in which he was ostensibly going to road trip with Helen. Through this spontaneous expedition, Warren begins to finally get a sense of who he is. But is even that enough to make him happy?
Probably not. But a tale that ends with self-actualization with a distinct beginning, middle, and end isn’t exactly the name of About Schmidt’s game anyway. What Payne’s going for, I think, is not a tidy story in which a hapless character experiences rediscovery but rather a slice of life that finds its interest, and often its humor, in a character who’s never known himself. Who knows that he didn’t really make his mark on the world, and that he’ll probably be immediately forgotten the moment dirt’s poured atop his cheap coffin.
Such is a depressing notion. And it isn’t one Payne attempts to subvert, either. Yet About Schmidt is a deeply funny film, to be put in the same category as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) or Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2004). Both were movies in which almost all the comedy arose from sharp, sometimes uncomfortable observations about older men at a crossroads and the people they encountered. They also contained the truth that life, even when it’s at its most miserable and tragic, can be funny. This sensibility works here.
The bland Schmidt is supported by a cast of colorful characters who perhaps make for the reason the movie is a masterwork in cringe comedy and not a totally dispiriting portrait of a man. Davis, perennially fed up with her father’s way of trying to meld her into the woman he wants her to be, is perfectly exasperated; Mulroney is fittingly gross, amplified by looking like he’d vote for Ted Nugent if he were to vie for the presidency. An Oscar-nominated Kathy Bates, as Randall’s mom, effectively juxtaposes Schmidt’s passivity, so without manners and self-consciousness she’s like a tiger to his bunny rabbit.
But this is Jack Nicholson’s movie, and his performance is made all the more impressive because this character is so opposite from him in life. We know Nicholson as the kind of person who seizes the day, who has an immediately recognizable personal style and a smarmy sense of humor. Schmidt, in contrast, is almost anonymous, shapeless; he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and probably never will. Nicholson inhabits him exquisitely, capturing his each and every neuroses with just the right balance of pity and sensitivity. There’s a moment toward the end of the movie wherein Schmidt reads a letter and bursts into tears. And in that moment does Nicholson showcase some of the best acting he's ever done.
And About Schmidt is among Nicholson’s best movies. It also makes for a high point in Payne’s dependably insightful, and dependably varied, career. A comedy of manners such as this one is undoubtedly difficult to make: to find a comfortable common ground between soul-baring character study and comic wit is a venture to be avoided unless you’re a filmmaker of rare intelligence. Payne happens to be one. The movie hits all the right notes and makes all the right moves. It is to be treasured, along with Nicholson’s stunning performance. A
2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
About Schmidt January 5, 2018
ust five minutes into Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002) does one of its most pivotal scenes arrive. In it, we become one of the guests attending Warren R. Schmidt’s (Jack Nicholson) retirement dinner. His wife Helen (June Squibb) sits benignly by his side; his co-workers and pals make small talk at separate tables. The Schmidts are probably the oldest people in the room, aside from a couple of Warren’s longtime buddies. Having worked for his company for almost 50 years, these short 15 minutes of semi- fame are well-deserved.