starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb
screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, based on the book by Louis Begley
directed by Alexander Payne
by Walter Chaw Alexander Payne's (Citizen Ruth, Election) third film is his best. He (like Wes Anderson and his third film, The Royal Tenenbaums) has come into his own as an auteur voice for a new American cinema that finds its underpinnings in David Lynch and John Cassavetes--in the Midwest grotesque and the elevation of the banal. In relating a Prufrockian tale of a man reassessing the ruin of his life upon the occasion of his retirement from a life-insurance firm, Payne strikes a balance between absurdity and pithiness, becoming in the process the sort of satire that exposes essential truths about the disintegrating spiral of life and the human condition. Married as it is to another wonderful late-career performance by Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt is heartbreaking and brilliant.
Schmidt (Nicholson) is getting toasted and roasted in a Midwest restaurant as the film opens, the guest of honour at his own wake, poised on the precipice of retirement and decrepitude. With a slow, deliberate amble, Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor allow Nicholson to twist in the crucible of his own obsolescence, indicting the suburban milk-fed malaise into which a certain gentry inevitably falls. With his grown daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) set to marry a well-meaning toad named Randall (Dermot Mulroney), Schmidt, following the death of his wife, Helen (June Squibb), takes to the Winnebago and goes on a quest to Denver to prevent his daughter from making what he sees as the biggest mistake of her life. In so trying, Schmidt comes to understand that his real contribution is allowing Jeannie to make her own mistakes.
Potentially trite, About Schmidt's American gothic is an edged document of life after conventional productivity--a picture interested in core questions of identity and progeny that finds humour in the peccadilloes of Jeannie's hippie in-laws (Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman) and a bridging narrative of Schmidt's continuing correspondence with an anonymous African orphan sponsored through a weepy infomercial. Like many films of this quality, though there are myriad opportunities for big speeches and epic gestures, the movements and plot points are subtle and lightly drawn. Consider Schmidt's toast to his daughter and her husband and how a lesser filmmaker would have pulled up a soapbox or attempted to summarize his hero's plight.
Nicholson's performance is perhaps his quietest. Mature as is befitting his age and stature (compare Nicholson's output of late to De Niro's horrific rot), the actor appears entirely comfortable in the skin of a well-intentioned failure. Always at his best as a character involved in the process of defining his place in a broken family dynamic (a plight closest to his own peculiar family experience), Nicholson's turn as Schmidt is as affecting an everyman for the aging new millennium as his disaffected Robert Dupea was for roughly the same generation about thirty-two years ago. Possible bookends for a legendary career, About Schmidt is a road film and a character study very much like Five Easy Pieces, and a fable of reconciliation poignant and pointed. Originally published: January 3, 2003.
by Bill Chambers I forgot how much I love About Schmidt when I popped the disc in, and I was momentarily nonplussed by the DVD's weird menus, which make the movie out to be a different kind of quirky than it is. No matter, this is another jewel in New Line's digital crown--a glowing example of how to present even an intimate character study so that it qualitatively competes with high-profile blockbusters, which generally receive the better DVD transfers. Lushness imbues the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, transforming the overcast visuals into a series of pretty tableaux. The sound is less likely to astound, though the barely distinguishable DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes do offer a few interesting passages of discrete audio, such as a background argument between Larry and Roberta after Schmidt first arrives in Denver.
There's a slim selection of supplementary material on board starting with nine deleted scenes, each with text introductions written by Alexander Payne that offer better-than-usual justifications for the cuts (one bit was snipped for being "too film-schooly" (damn if he isn't right), another--an ingenious homage to Five Easy Pieces--because Payne feared the explicit quotation of another Jack Nicholson vehicle would take the audience out of the picture; talk about overestimating modern moviegoers, the vast majority of whom only know Nicholson from Batman), as well as five "Woodmen Tower Sequences": Payne instructed his editing team to individually come up with a sequence establishing Schmidt's place of business from reams of second-unit footage. Of these experiments, I liked editor Danya Joseph's the most, for she let her imagination run wild, devising a prologue that seems to send up Cannon productions from the 1980s. In other words, she's not just trying to get picked. Trailers for About Schmidt, I Am Sam, and the upcoming Kathy Bates starrer Unconditional Love round out the disc, which also has ROM links to the film's website and childreach.org. Originally published: May 23, 2003.