Photo: New Line
This overlooked gem of the early aughts is about death, loneliness, and regret. This film is so in my bag that it’s a little concerning.
In general, Alexander Payne is an overlooked filmmaker who masterfully balances and shifts between comedy and drama, and consistently writes and directs intriguing, emotionally complicated characters. His consecutive run of Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways is absolutely lights out. Election, a viscous satire of U.S politics told through a high school class president vote, which is quite a far cry from the rest of his filmography, is the only one that has gotten its fair share of respect amongst the modern day online social media criticism body. People are just too dismissive of Payne’s kind of stories, which has developed a little bit of sameness since the start of the 2010s. Anything about middle-aged men struggling with an internal crisis is deemed “Oscar bait.” Alexander Payne the person might not be so great, but the artist is quite special in my book.
About Schmidt follows a 66 year old Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson). Recently retired and mourning the loss of his wife (June Squibb), he embarks on a cross-country road in an attempt to find something greater in life as well as attend his daughter’s (Hope Davis) wedding.
The plot description from a distance is hokey, but I can’t underestimate how much the film is trying to work against formulations. The hell with my plot description, Roger Ebert’s description is a perfect encapsulation of Schmidt’s attitude and purpose of life.
The film “is not about a man who goes on a journey to find himself, because there is no one to find. When Schmidt gets into his 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer, which he and his wife Helen thought to use in his retirement, it is not an act of curiosity but of desperation: He has no place else to turn.” I should just let him write these blogs.
Although its IMDb page says otherwise, the film is desperately trying not to be a traditional comedy. Nicholson even remarked when he won a Golden Globe (remember them?) for Best Actor in a Drama for his performance as the titular role, “I thought we made a comedy.” The fragmented comedic elements come from Warren using it to cover up his deeper internal sadness. This trait is masterfully executed by Payne in Sideways. The good-hearted and benign drama that complements the comedy in your typical “dramedy” is hard to find here. As Ebert wrote, Schmidt can’t be enlightened in retirement or during his road trip because he is ultimately vacant. The most powerful emotions he can strike up are pet peeves of his wife that he writes about to his foster child in Africa as part of a charity mailing program he sees on T.V. Payne naturally has a sharp tongue to his storytelling, so as a viewer, you feel more cruel pity for Schmidt than sympathy. He goes back into the office early into retirement, thinking his replacement needs his assistance, and doesn’t. His future son-in-law is slightly off-beat but good-spirited, and yet Warren is nothing but cold to him. Throughout the film, the formulaic reactions viewers have when watching the typical mid-life crisis dramedy are manipulated. You start thinking about the deep roots of the character’s darkness. Why is he like this? This works especially because Payne keeps the mystery afloat and Nicholson shows unprecedented restraint.
Speaking of which, I don’t like to play the hot take game, but is About Schmidt the great Jack Nicholson’s finest work as an actor? For as iconic as he is, Jack never truly immerses himself into a role. The character, in the end, is always Jack, whether he’s a patient in a mental hospital or a private detective. His performance as Warren Schmidt is the exception. As previously mentioned, his restraint is the biggest reason why he becomes this character. The performance upends audience expectations in that the viewer is waiting throughout the entire arch of the story for Warren to break out and become the loud, vibrant, and explosive Jack that we see in Five Easy Pieces and The Shining. Yet, in his last ever capital “g” Great performance, he never does it. Despite that, you are able to feel his off-putting energy by how he acts with his face, and the great positioning and framing Payne does to express it. The emotions he brings to his performance are less traditionally defined and more shapeless. “Nicholson somehow finds within Schmidt a slowing developing hunger, a desire to start living now that the time is almost gone” Ebert writes.
I can’t help but address Ebert’s closing paragraph to his review.
“Most teenagers will probably not be drawn to this movie, but they should attend. Let it be a lesson to them. If they define their lives only in terms of a good job, a good paycheck and a comfortable suburban existence, they could end up like Schmidt, dead in the water. They should start paying attention to that crazy English teacher.”
Well there’s one way to connect to the kids, Roger. I’m drawn to this because of how the film speaks to me on a personal level. Meanwhile, I don’t have a career yet and I’m relating to a film about old age. Nonetheless, I ponder on how my past and present work may ultimately amount to nothing, starting from public school to this very moment of writing a blog post about a 2002 drama that I’ve never discussed with anyone yet I deeply admire. Everything I do seems to serve the future purpose of being able to live on my own in the real world, whether it is my college education or interest in movies. With each passing year, things are not so much about “the love of the game” as they say. I keep looking ahead for the future, and at some point, the future will wane and all you have is limited time in the present. And like Warren Schmidt, your financial and career success gives you zero fulfillment at the end of the day. I have a desire to develop and strengthen social bonds and experiences, but like Schmidt, there’s a void where that makes it difficult for me.
This personal connection is why the film’s ending and final shot is like a hammer dropping on my heart. When Warren opens an envelope containing a crayon drawing of him and the foster boy as stick figures holding hands, you are simply looking at a mirror when the camera cuts to Warren sobbing. The film’s patience pays off at the highest order. In a tender moment like that, the innocent beauty of living is fully appreciated.