(director/writer: Alexander Payne; screenwriters: from the novel by Louis Begley/Jim Taylor; cinematographer: James Glennon; editor: Kevin Tent; music: Rolfe Kent; cast: Jack Nicholson (Warren Schmidt), Kathy Bates (Roberta Hertzel), Hope Davis (Jeannie Schmidt), Dermot Mulroney (Randall Hertzel), June Squibb (Helen Schmidt), Len Cariou (Ray Nichols), Howard Hessman (Larry Hertzel), Matt Winston (Gary Nordin, Warren’s Replacement), Cheryl Hamada (Saundra), Mark Venhuizen (Duncan Hertzel), Connie Ray (Vicki Rusk), Harry Groener (John Rusk); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Harry Gittes/Michael Besman; New Line Cinema; 2002)
“I walked out of the theater not giving a darn about Schmidt…”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jack Nicholson stars at last in a part that actually reflects his true age. Here, he contorts his body in a rigid pose and he’s put on a load of weight to make himself look weighed down with his troubles. For most of the film he’s a clueless slob trying to uncover what’s wrong with his life. This lifeless portrayal of such a miserable character never goes anywhere except to milk a few stale jokes out of his despair. He’s Warren Schmidt, a 66-year-old loser and resident of Omaha, Nebraska. He feels empty inside and despairs that his life might be a useless one, one without real friends and a loving family. His 42 years of marriage to his devoted wife Helen (June Squibb) is now viewed as a failure, as he finds her unattractive and her overbearing behavior gets on his nerves. She is someone who is not as pleasing to him as he lets on in public (Warren has lied so often, he can’t tell the truth from the lies). His only child, an attractive daughter named Jeannie (Hope Davis), is someone special to him but she secretly resents him because he emotionally ignored her when she was growing up. She now lives in Denver and is busy working for a high-tech computer company to spend much time with him, as she communicates mostly by phone with her mum. He’s also disappointed that she’s engaged to Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), someone he considers to be an nincompoop, not up to snuff for her, a scheming, poorly read, crass, waterbed salesman, who sports his hair in an unflattering mullet. But what sets Warren adrift is that he is retiring as an assistant VP and actuary for the Woodmen insurance firm after working there for 32 years, and has no great plans for the future except to travel in his new Winnebago his wife made him buy. The frugal man still has her paying most of the cost in order to get the luxury model she wanted. His heart isn’t into traveling, as he just wants to be useful to someone and wants to make a difference.
“About Schmidt” is an ambitious film which is part comedy, part tragedy, part satire, and mostly sitcom, but with a limited story to tell. It never moves beyond describing the obvious. I walked out of the theater not giving a darn about Schmidt, when I guess I was supposed to identify with him as the American “everyman.” It is directed with all sorts of contrivances by the Omaha-bred Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth“/”Election“), and is loosely based on a novel by Louis Begley and is scripted by the director and his longtime screenwriter collaborator Jim Taylor. It’s disconcerting that the film uses a charity ploy to gain what it takes to be some heartfelt emotional responses. But the only emotion the film manages to squeeze out, it exploits from the heartfelt letters written by Schmidt to a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan named Ndugu whom he sponsors on a whim after watching a TV infomercial. He signs up as a sponsor and dutifully sends a donation of $22 a month. Payne uses these letters as the only means for Schmidt to express his true feelings. Schmidt learns later on when the nun in charge of his orphan sends him a letter in reply, and tells him that the youngster can’t read or write but does appreciate the support.
Such a dry telling of an uninteresting man’s life and his journey to nowhere or back into the bland Midwestern landscape he can’t escape from, amounts to telling an uninspired on-the-road tale about an unpleasant rascal who has certain eccentricities that have usually been bankable commodities for sitcom shows. But as movie fare, such antics leave me cold. After Schmidt attends his firm’s retirement party given in his honor at a local steakhouse and he can’t disguise his displeasure at the young squirt who replaces him and gives a speech that dutifully praises the retiree without meaning a word of it. Schmidt’s downfall becomes imminent. Soon his wife suddenly dies from a brain clot and he’s left to fend for himself after being pampered by her all these years. He finds his loneliness unbearable, and the house becomes messy (typical sitcom comedy is derived from his lack of housecleaning skills and eating frozen dinners). When he finds love letters of his wife’s hidden in a shoebox that go back some 25 years between her and his best friend Ray (Cariou), he decides to take his Winnebago and retrace his life journey’s. He returns to his birthplace, a small Nebraskan hayseed town, and finds his childhood home is now a tire shop. He visits his frat house in Lawrence, Kansas, and seems disengaged with the current frat boys living there. He visits a few historical Nebraska towns and has a better opinion of Native Americans than he once had and a renewed awe for the courage of the pioneers. In a trailer spot, he’s befriended by a dull couple (Connie Ray & Harry Groener) who invite him over to their cheaper model trailer for dinner after the hubby admires his luxury model. But he exits the park in the middle of the night when he mistakes the woman’s sympathetic ear she offers for an offer of lovemaking and he kisses her on the lips, as she screams for him to leave at once. His journey eventually brings him to Denver for the wedding, where he stays with Randall’s New Age sexually uninhibited mother Roberta (Kathy Bates). He again unsuccessfully tries to talk his daughter out of marrying beneath her, and becomes aghast when the sexually turned on obese Roberta gets into the hot tub with him in the nude (another excuse for garnering cheap laffs). He gives up hope of saving his daughter and tries to make the best of meeting his son-in-law’s lowbrow but unassuming family. At the wedding he goes through the proper protocol of giving away his daughter. The film’s payoff off is when back in Omaha, he receives a letter from the charity organization enclosing a drawing the child made and is told that the child prays for his happiness. The film ends as a big crocodile tear is coming down the unshaven face of Nicholson.
Nicholson’s performance is not only nothing much special, but predictable and tiresome. Every move he makes is one that seems frozen in the same stale techniques he has always used since Easy Rider days and therefore he seems no different in this part than he usually does. It’s upsetting to me that he’s been nominated for Best Actor in the Oscar derby, especially when there were so many deserving performances overlooked, and the Hollywood buzz is that he’s the favorite to win. If he should win, can it be said with a straight face how his performance was better than Adrien Brody’s masterful and complex one in The Pianist? Besides, it’s usually harder to lose than gain weight. If there’s any acting honors to be given out, it should go to the fine supporting cast and especially for the chipper performance by Hope Davis, the very amusing comedic effort by Kathy Bates, and the deadpan comic one by Dermot Mulroney.
REVIEWED ON 2/23/2003 GRADE: C https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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