Thursday, May 18, 2006

From the Treadmill: About Schmidt

The biggest complaint about Jack Nicholson, even from his fans, is that he never loses himself in a role. It doesn’t matter if he is a rebellious mental patient or an omni-phobic novelist, his animated eyebrows and dastardly smile are always winking at the audience through the fourth wall. The buzz that surrounded the release of “About Schmidt’ was all about how you’ll finally see Nicholson as you never have before, as a character in a movie and not the guy sitting next to Dyan Cannon at Lakers’ games.

The buzz was correct for the most part. There’s none of the cockiness or mischievousness that we expect from Jack. It did take me a few minutes to completely accept that I was watching Warren R. Schmidt, a 60-something insurance actuary, and not the actor portraying him.

At the film’s beginning, Warren is attending his retirement banquet. We, the viewers, are supposed to soak in the indignity of seeing a man’s entire career being feted at a Maverick-style restaurant with a speech by the young whippersnapper who is replacing him. At this point, I was still seeing Hollywood Jack and wondering at the ridiculousness of a celebration of his lifetime achievements that didn’t include an audience of worshipful celebrities and a special gold statue presented by Amanda Peet.**

But that tinsel-tinted perception fizzled once introduced to Warren’s wife, played by the decidedly un-Peet-like, Jane Squibb. And it never returned as the movie became absorbed in the dour reality of a man for whom life is devoid of wonder and emotion. A life where every person’s existence can be summarized through a calculation of demographics and probabilities. This is no “Easy Rider”, although there is a road trip.

After his wife Helen dies suddenly, Warren finds himself lost. With no job to attend to or wife to attend to him, he hits the road in his new RV, retracing points in his history while heading out to his daughter Jeannie’s wedding, an event that he hopes to keep from happening.

The movie uses a neat little device to allow us inside Warren’s head. He “adopts” a young Tanzanian named Ndugu through a children’s world charity organization. Taking to heart the charity’s suggestion that along with sending a monthly check he also include a letter to his new stepson, Warren uses his monthly correspondence to unload the deepest thoughts of a depressed Nebraskan actuary, which we hear through voice-over narration, on a boy living amidst hunger and disease.

In one of the film’s funniest moments, Warren ends his first lengthy missive by apologizing for rambling on and stating “You probably can't wait to run out and cash this check and get yourself something to eat.”, as if Ndugu will be heading down to the village Applebee’s for some chicken fingers and an Oreo milkshake.

The film’s depressive mood is punctuated frequently with other very funny moments, most coming from the family of Jeannie’s fiancĂ©. Dermot Mulroney is perfect as Randall, a mullet-headed waterbed salesman who is stealing away the daughter that Warren never had time for when she was a child. Kathy Bates, Randall’s mother, is the polar opposite of Warren. She embraces life fully and never lets an emotion go unexpressed. She does have a gratuitous nude scene that made me wish that the director had cast Peet in that role, but other than that, Bates was perfect.

Another amusing scene comes when Warren meets up with the kindness of two strangers at an RV camp. John and Vicki Rusk – with their strong regional accents, golly-gee attitude, and blunt honesty – do for Wisconsinites what the characters in “Fargo” did for Minnesotans. Warren starts to open up to the couple before betraying their unconditional hospitality by making an awkward pass at Vicki. Embarrassed, he flees. At least he didn’t throw her in a wood chipper.

The movie has a false ending that occurs when Warren is giving his father-of-the-bride speech at the wedding reception. After having previously witnessed Jeannie’s resolution when he confronted her with his disapproval of the marriage, we anticipate that Warren will undergo a change of heart and find happiness in his daughter’s happiness. The speech seems to be headed in that direction as he finds something nice to say about Randall and all of his kooky relatives, but after an emotional turn talking about Jeannie and Helen, Warren concludes by saying that he is “pleased” at what has transpired that day. Not “overjoyed” or “filled with love” or “overcome by happiness” – merely “pleased.” In Jeannie’s face we see her disappointment, and perhaps her disgust, with her emotionally deprived father.

Many viewers were disappointed by the film, expecting the “you make me want to be a better man” moment that never comes. It’s true that there is no happy ending, but not every story should have a happy ending. We see Warren as he is, not how we want him to be. "About Schmidt" won’t leave you filling all sunny inside, but it is a fine movie with enough humor to keep it from being totally dark. As for Nicholson, you can put his Warren Schmidt right up there with Jake Gittes, Randall Patrick McMurphy, and Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky as one of the best performances of his career.

*We have several other “About…” titles in our movie collection. “About Adam” , “About a Boy”, “About Last Night” and “The Cutting Edge”, which is about stupid.

**Of all of Jack’s co-stars throughout his career, Peet would be my number one choice to do the honors. Shelley Duvall would be the last.


Monkey Boy said...

In regard to Shelly Duvall;

I recall many years ago in a TV show titled; "Women Who Rate a 10" Ms. Duvall was one that rated a "10" according to those who rated Hollywood stars at the time.

Must not have been a scientific study. Quite possibly the raters included numerous blind individuals.

Anonymous said...

The Cutting Edge is one the best comedies of the 90's.

Toe Pick!

UMRBlog said...

Cheap ending! Cheesy writing for Bates. Watching Nicholson lay out Schmidt in a pitiful shell of a "road trip" film was like watching Sergei Bubka clear a five foot fence.

Will said...

Have you seen him in Hoffa? I completely forgot it was Jack playing Hoffa.

UMRBlog said...

No, but I've heard the same thing from others.

By way of disclaimers, I'm probably a lousy film critic, being self employed. I see maybe three a year. "Schmidt" just didn't do it for me and I thought the ending was just a cheap cutaway. Actually, I went to see it because Al Roker liked it. Al Roker liked Zoolander, too. Now if Al Roker likes a film, I avoided it the Bird Flu.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

I'm interested in why you would have heeded Al's advice in the first place. If he told me to bring an umbrella to work or to go to a certain pizza place, I might listen. But for movies, Al's given me no reason to trust his judgement.

I didn't see Hoffa either. And as for the Cutting Edge, Anon, the fact that you call it a comedy makes my case for how bad it is. I don't think that we were supposed to be laughing.

Finally, I don't want to live in a time when Shelly Duvall is considered a "10".

Thanks for commenting,