Saturday, November 06, 2010

About Schmidt

Originally Written and Posted at on 6/4/04 w/ Additional Edits.

One of the most enduring and influential actors to grace the silver screen, Jack Nicholson gave moviegoers roles anyone can remember. Whether it's a werewolf, a joker, a sailor, a drunk, or all sorts of crazy guys. After winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1997 for As Good as it Gets, Nicholson took a break from acting. By this point, an actor of his caliber and age would end up retiring or end up playing roles that are familiar to an audience. Unfortunately for some of those veteran actors, they end up playing themselves to the point that they've lost their edge. For Jack Nicholson, he found the right role in 2002 in a bleak-comedy from Alexander Payne about a 66-year old retiree trying to stop his daughter from getting married to a loser while wondering what meaning his life had to anyone entitled About Schmidt.

About Schmidt is a film about ageing and what could've been with your life at an old age. From the Louis Begley novel adapted into a script by Payne and Jim Taylor, About Schmidt has all of the offbeat humor that Payne's previous films Citizen Ruth and Election had.  Unlike those previous films, this one is more harrowing. Payne's bleak look on About Schmidt reveals the fear of growing old and not being useful to anyone. The casting of a legend like Jack Nicholson in the role of Warren R. Schmidt is indeed inspiring, especially since Nicholson does something he hasn't done in this role, which was restraining himself. With a rich cast including Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, and Dermont Mulroney, About Schmidt is a funny, offbeat drama from Alexander Payne.

The film begins as Warren R. Schmidt is counting down the seconds of his final day as an executive vice president at the Woodmen insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. When the day ends, a new chapter of his life begins as he goes to a retiring party with his wife Helen (June Squibb) as he looks on at all the people celebrating his life including best friend Ray Nichols (Len Cariou). Warren feels calm but awkward about his present life, as he couldn't believe that he's now retired as he returns home as he gets a call from his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) about a robe she and her fiancée Randall Hertzel (Dermont Mulroney) gave him. Warren doesn't think much of Randall as he begins his new life as a retiree with Helen as they have breakfast in the motor home they just bought and he goes to his office to find his replacement not needing him at all with his old files in a trash bin.

One day, Warren scours through the channels till he finds the Childreach service as he decides to call and help a poor child. A few days later, he gets a letter where the child he sponsors is a little boy from Tanzania named Ndugu. He writes Ndugu a letter where he channels his frustrations about his life how he calls his replacement "a cocky bastard". He also writes about his family and how he disapproves Jeannie of getting married to Randall and how his wife Helen now irritates him with little things like the way she smelled, she sits, and how she makes him urinates sitting down. He wonders, "Who in the hell is this old woman living in my house?" He sends $11 in a check and the letter as he tells Helen he's going to the post office and upon his return; she dies all of a sudden. Jeannie and Randall come to Omaha to comfort Warren, as he is subdued over the whole thing.  Yet, Randall talks to him about a pyramid scheme while Jeannie criticizes Warren over the fact that he bought a cheap coffin for her mom and that he needs to take care of himself now.

Helen's death leaves Warren to be a mess as he leaves the house to be messy as he begins to discover love letters Ray had sent her a long time ago. Warren snaps at Ray as he decides to leave for a trip while writing letters to Ndugu. Warren begins to relive his adolescents by visiting his old fraternity house in the State of Kansas University and his old childhood home, which became a tire store. One day during a stop, he meets up with a couple named John and Vicki Rusk (Harry Groener and Connie Ray) where they invited him to dinner as they talk about their kids and sorts. When John was away, Warren talks to Vicki about his wife as he felt, she understood him better than his wife did as he makes a pass at her forcing him to leave. He then ponders if he was ever good enough for Helen as he decides to stop Jeannie from marrying Randall by going to Denver.

Warren arrives at Denver where he meets Randall's hippie mother Roberta (Kathy Bates) at her house while having dinner with Jeannie, Randall, his brother Duncan (Mark Venhuizen), and Randall's divorced father Larry (Howard Hesseman) with his new wife Saundra (Cheryl Hamada). Warren couldn't believe Jeannie is going to be married to this strange, bohemian family as he begs Jeannie to reconsider but she has already decided to marry Randall. Warren's night gets worse when he sleeps at Randall's room and on a waterbed of all things that made him stiff and disjointed. Jeannie is angry and stressed over the plans of the wedding and her dad in this situation as he tries to get up but he becomes a zombie of sorts during rehearsals for the wedding. Things get worse for Warren as he begins to wonder what difference has he made for anyone.

While Citizen Ruth and Election were extremely funny and offbeat, About Schmidt is more of a dramatic film with elements of humor. Alexander Payne truly deserves credit for bringing in light-hearted comedy to the film's bleak tone. Even with its drab, grayish-look from cinematographer James Glennon gives the film its bleakness while presenting the world of Middle America that is often overlooked. Payne's harrowing view is pretty funny on some cases, especially the way Nicholson's Schmidt character looks at all the things in America including museums and arrowheads. Payne is truly one of the best American filmmakers in the past decade and About Schmidt is truly an amazing American story despite its the cynical tone towards aging.

Hope Davis delivers an enchanting yet powerful performance as Jeannie.  A woman wanting to get married though her stress can lead her to act bitchy towards her dad, who is trying to help. Dermont Mulroney is hilarious as the waterbed salesman Randall. While he looks like a cartoon with a mullet and a weird mustache, he's a kind of guy who is just nice despite the fact that he's a nincompoop. The smaller performances of June Squibb, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, Harry Groener, and Connie Ray, all standout in their respective roles while the best supporting performance overall goes to Kathy Bates. Bates brings in a brash, funny performance as this bohemian, hippie woman who curses a lot, does all of these weird things and most of all, gets naked in a hot tub with Nicholson. Bates deserves kudos for showing the world what a real woman looks like, as it's one of those "Whoa!"moments.

The film's best performance easily goes to Jack Nicholson. Usually, Nicholson would've done things in a more offbeat, crazy sort of way where he's loose and abrasive. For the Warren Schmidt character, he doesn't do any of that since it would've been too easy for him and he would end up parodying himself. What Nicholson does is give a restrained, somewhat relaxed approach to his character and at times, make himself feel awkward. It's Nicholson not trying to be young but actually, accepting his age in a role that is classic Nicholson. Nicholson manages to balance a sense of comedy into his performance as he drools during the rehearsal while putting in some his mastery in drama to the more heartwarming performances, especially in the film's final scene.

While it's not as funny as Election or his 2004 film Sideways, About Schmidt is still a strong, funny drama from Alexander Payne featuring a masterful performance from Jack Nicholson. Fans who loved Nicholson in the past will be amazed at his performance while Payne fans will love this comedy for its offbeat, relaxed tone. Even the supporting performances of Mulroney, Davis, and Kathy Bates will keep the audience watching, especially in the more shocking moments. It's a film that's both entertaining while not trying to be too real for its audience. In the end, Payne delivers another winner with About Schmidt as Jack Nicholson proves himself again as an enigmatic actor.

Alexander Payne Films: Citizen Ruth - Election - Sideways - Paris Je T'aime-14th Arrondissment - The Descendants - Nebraska - (Downsizing) - The Holdovers - (Tracy Flick Can't Win) - The Auteurs #5: Alexander Payne

(C) thevoid99 2010

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