Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb
MPAA Rating: (for some language and brief nudity)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 12/13/02 (limited); 1/3/03 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The film truly is what its title suggests. About Schmidt is about one manóhis outlook on and station in life, his place in the world, his greatest fears. In a way, he represents the rest of us, but still the film remains incredibly specific to his character and situation. That it finds humor in its sad, lonely hero is surprising to a degree but, then again, not so much so. Desperation is one of those human qualities we all possess and are able to find humor in. And thatís also why the film works so well as a comedy; for the most part, it is a human one. Where the film really manages to strike an emotional chord, though, is in its examination of an ordinary manís search for meaning in his life as he nears his eventual demise. He searches everywhere for it and along the way discovers just how meaningless his life and lifeís work seem to himself and others. Itís humorous and, at the same time, incredibly sad because we see a bitóor maybe even a lotóof him in ourselves.
The film opens with Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) sitting in office waiting as the seconds tick away on his last day at the job before retirement at the age of sixty-six. We can tell right away that thereís something missing from his life. Later that night, he and his wife Helen (June Squibb) attend his retirement party, where his new replacement (obviously full of self-serving intentions) wishes him farewell and an old friend gives a heart-felt (and inebriated) speech about the riches gained from a life in service to his job. In Schmidtís eyes and face, we see he has doubts about his friendís hypothesis. Arriving at home, Schmidtís daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) calls. See how his entire existence lights up the instant he finds out whoís on the phone. Life at home is rather redundant for Schmidt, and even at work, they donít need the help he can offer. Heís been tossed aside; his replacement has even thrown away, what we assume is, Schmidtís lifeís work in the insurance business. He and his wife are planning a Winnebago trip and will soon be attending their daughterís wedding to a waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney), whom Schmidt really, really despises.
Schmidtís life is turned upside-down after a tragedy, which incites him to start externally exploring all those issues that have been pent up inside of him for so long. Schmidt and the film head out on the road, as he journeys to discover what may fill the void in his feelings of worth. Structurally, this part of the script (by director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor) is much like a typical road movie. Thematically, however, it represents a few different ways of how people search for meaning. Schmidt first returns to the past, where he discovers an auto store where his childhood home once stood. Next, he reconciles with the present, managing to overcome the progressing stages of grief. His Winnebago trip is deliberately paced and nearing existential in its depiction of this manís quest. The film reaches an emotional and thematic catharsis in these scenes, which sets up the final phase in Schmidtís journey. Coming to grips with the inescapable future is the final step, but he must first try one last thing to gain control of and in his life and perhaps serve a purpose.
Until this point, the film has succeeded in finding humor in its characters, but here it introduces Schmidtís mission to stop his daughterís marriage. Now Payne and Taylor move into situational comedy as Schmidt meets his daughterís future in-laws. Are these scenes as successful as the human comedy that has preceded them? No, but they still are quite amusing. Some of the jokes pit Schmidt in embarrassing positions, but most of the humor lies in the presentation of this family of yokels. A very funny Kathy Bates plays Randallís mother Roberta, the only member of the family who shows any sort of class, which says a lot about the rest of the family. The character who best displays why Schmidt doesnít want his daughter to marry Randall is Randall himself. What a schmuck. In some of his worst moments, he raises an awkward and ill-timed toast to the recently deceased, brings up a business deal while visiting for a funeral, takes a picture of father and daughter in a tender moment just to finish off the roll of film, and, to top it all off, he has a mullet. Yes, he has a mullet. Dermot Mulroney does a fine job, giving this slimy man an air of sincerity while still making us question it to the point that we know he has to be a phony.
Of course, the film belongs to Jack Nicholson and his exceptionally subtle and expressive performance. Nicholson seems to be improving with age; each new role he takes on seems to peel back another layer of his persona. He gives one of his best performances here, once again shattering the perception weíve developed about him as an actor and the type of character he plays. Nicholson embodies this man and gets under his skin. From the very start, we begin to pick up on all the tiny details about this man, thanks solely to the actorís ability to translate the characterís inner workings in simple looks, movements, and pauses. The screenplay introduces a gimmick fairly early on in which Schmidt is able to express his thoughts in letters to a poor child named Ndugu from Tanzania, whom he sponsors through a program he sees on TV. We imagine this would let Nicholson off the hook, but he only delves deeper into Schmidt as a result.About Schmidt ends on a note that may appear too simple, and in a way, it is. Thatís the point, though. Where Schmidt finds a sense of worth is certainly one of those things that could be misconstrued as oversimplifying and sentimentalizing a complex issue, but it doesnít matter what we think. The film still maintains that itís important to him and therefore the ultimate answer for him. For Schmidt, that answer lies in looking beyond his world, making a new relationship, and thinking of the well-being of another human being. Is that oversimplified and sentimental? I, for one, donít think so. Is it the answer for us all? The answer to that question of questions is for each of us to discover on our own.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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