It seems an unfortunate phenomenon of Hollywood that sometimes
a directorís most sluggish work will turn out to be the most
popular, even though itís nowhere near as good as oneís previous
works. I suspect this will be the case with About Schmidt.
It will gross billions of dollars and receive a lot of attention
because it features A Famous Actor, Jack Nicholson.
While there are certainly a lot of things to like about this
film, it unfortunately just doesnít compare to director Alexander
Payneís previous work (Citizen Ruth, Election).
Therefore, and maybe for no fault of its own, this latest
endeavor is somewhat of a letdown. Itís frustrating because
Payne is a good director, deserving of accolades. No one else
has managed so brilliantly to capture Midwestern, middle-class
life with such insightful wit and poignancy. These things
surface yet again in Payneís third film, but he just doesnít
tackle them perfectly as he did in his sophomore effort, Election.
Even more troubling is how to provide a basic summary of
this film without spoiling the surprises. Previews lead one
to believe this is a ďroad trip pictureĒ where Nicholson embarks
on a journey as a means of self-discovery and starting over.
This is partly true, but About Schmidt is really more
about universal themes of suffering and regret: not knowing
how important something is until after youíve lost it, and
the realization that a fraction of your life has passed and
youíre not sure you made that much of a difference on this
big blue marble.
We are introduced to Schmidt on the day of his retirement
from the Woodman Insurance Company, where he has spent his
life compiling statistics. Payne opens his film with a sequence
of shots featuring what was at the time Omahaís tallest building,
the Woodman Tower. Itís no World Trade Center, but the multi-angled
shots are eerily reminiscent of former twin towers. I could
not help wondering whether Payne did this intentionally, making
us uncomfortable from the start as a way of subtly suggesting
how similarly uncomfortable and disquieting Schmidtís world
really is. Heís had a comfortable life, but has it been a
While it appears Schmidtís staid life is about to change
dramatically, but we simultaneously suspect that he isnít
capable of doing anything radical or exciting. Itís the tension
between these two realities that propels the film forward.
In fact some big changes do occur in Schmidtís life immediately
after his retirement. He decides to ďsponsorĒ an underprivileged
child in Africa. In addition to his monthly check, he writes
his designated orphan long letters in which he ruminates on
his past choices and possible regrets. Itís these letters
that provide hilarious insight into what Schmidt really thinks
and feels about his life.
Schmidt also decides to motor across Nebraska in his newly
purchased RV, ostensibly to stop his daughter from getting
married. Here the film glimpses greatness but canít seem to
hold it together. Schmidt spends one night on the roof of
his RV, accompanied by three porcelain figurines he purchased
earlier in the day. Reflecting on his past and resolving to
start anew, he crawls off the camper top the next morning
and drives away. One by one, the figurines helplessly zigzag
across the slick surface before flying off the roof into space.
It should serve as a metaphor for Schmidtís future life except
it never really turns out that way. Even though Schmidtís
journey is a disappointing one, itís still worth following
along for the ride.
ó Nancy Semin