DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of About Schmidt

 

Title:  About Schmidt

Release Date:  2002

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 120 min

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company:  New Line Cinema

Director; Writer: Alexander Payne; screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor; based on novel by Louis Begley

Producer: Harry Gittes and Michael Besman

Cast:   Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney

Technical:

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Review:

 

Okay, “About Schmidt” sounds like an about box on a website. Somebody even posted an “about Bill Boushka” for one of my speaking engagements.

 

Which is to say, this movie again is more exposition, a slow discovery and recollection of an aging man’s sense of self. Jack Nicholson carries this off, with a character whom one might otherwise pity rather than engage and respect. Nicholson can draw the viewer in like few actors.

 

Schmidt has retired from his position as a vice president of actuarial services at a life insurance company in Omaha. Perhaps he was forced out in a restructuring; the film could have played up this point more. (Indeed, he waits alone for the clock to hit 5 o’clock on his last day, when usually people exit a company in broad daylight.) He goes home to his two-story brick house to look forward to golden years with his wife, who is looking forward to their times together in a camper. Soon she dies suddenly of a stroke. He is left almost like a helpless baby, unable to care for the house (it becomes a lot messier than my own apartment) and desperately seeking attention from former co-workers as well as family members.

 

In the meantime, he has decided to contribute to an international children’s charity, which has named him a “foster parent” to a boy in Tanzania, Ngudu.  The charity encourages him to write to Ngudu, and this invitation gives Schmidt the incentive to start recording his misadventures.

 

His daughter seems self-actualized enough, though. She chastises him for choosing the cheapest coffin (except a “sandbox”); “You could have splurged on Mom once.” She is planning to marry a slightly thawing waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney) who comes across as a typical redneck with few real skills beyond procreation, so he is making up pyramid schemes, like a typical parasite. Oh well, he can act like a real “go getter.”  Schmidt decides to drive the camper to Denver and get there early to “help” his daughter and make himself needed. Of course, she doesn’t need him until “just in time,” so his story turns into a road movie of the Great Plains. There is even a side trip to Lawrence, Kansas (aka Smallville), with a shot of the Kansas University Strong Hall on Mount Oread.

 

Along the way he has more misadventures. He meets a friendly couple from Wisconsin at a trailer park, and then another woman who tries to give him therapy (after questioning whether his 40 years of marriage had meant anything) as a “sad man.” When he takes this a clue for an advance, he is angrily rebuffed.

 

When he arrives in Denver, the mother of his daughter’s fiancée (played by Kathy Bates, from Misery) takes an interest in him, finally. There are more mishaps, as when Schmidt is bedridden after his back goes out while on the waterbed (“anything for me in the bed pan?”)  The final wedding does come across well.

 

At this point, I remembered My Big Fat Greek Wedding from the summer, and this new movie seemed much more real to me than the ethnic comedy, which to me had seemed trite and patronizing to old-fashioned values even though that movie did very well at the box office and was popular with the public.

 

Here, an aging man is questioning whether his life means anything at all. It must have, if he raised a family successfully, but it seems that after retiring and becoming a widower he was unable to define any purposes for himself on his own; he needed to have these goals dictated to him by others. Indeed, without family and structured job to give him purpose, he seems to have disintegrated into a kind of inertness, almost like a chemical loss of valence. He does find final redemption in a letter and drawing from Ngudu.

 

Now, I have supported Save The Children (as I mention in my Do Ask, Do Tell book) since 1977, but I have never regarded myself as a “foster parent” and have never written the children assigned to me (they are changed about every three years). It had never even occurred to me to do that. 

 

So if I ask the same Reviewing Your Life question about myself, I do feel that my writings have made a difference, but I authenticated myself by providing for a family first. So I wind up feeling some of the same vulnerabilities as Schmidt.

 

The screenwriting is masterful, with almost every line of the script saying something provocative, yet always perfectly natural, colloquial, and character-driven. 

 

 

Related reviews:   Sideways; Garden State      (“Sideways” is also directed by Payne)

 

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