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About Schmidt (R)
New Line
Official Site
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Michael Besman, Harry Gittes
Written by: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor; from the novel by Louis Begley
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Howard Hesseman, Len Cariou

Rating: out of 5


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 satisfying one?

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

 

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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