About Schmidt
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

The Manhattan-Hollywood Serious Movie Axis has a history of mocking the "fly-over states." Middle America's malls are a reliable bailout for many a big-budget studio picture, and what kind of artist can resist biting the saving hand? So when you find out that a screen version of About Schmidt, a novel by Louis Begley, originally set in the Hamptons, is set in Nebraska, your antennas go up -- uh-oh, another big-city stab at American Babbittry.

Yet the severest criticism of the Middle American ways came from among its own, including Sinclair Lewis, the author of Babbitt. Alexander Payne, the director of About Schmidt, is a native Nebraskan, too, and East-West-Coast snobbery has not been in evidence in his prior work. Citizen Ruth was a broad political comedy that, defying the Manhattan-Hollywood formula, refused to endorse either side of the abortion debate; and Election, a comedy about a high school election for student body president, should be compulsory viewing for any outsider who wishes to understand the American political system. Both movies were smart, literate, and painstakingly precise. In About Schmidt, Payne does exactly what an artist should do: he takes the familiar and mines it to reveal the human condition that goes deeper than a single political issue or even the entire political system.

Precision and authenticity are the elements that render Payne's work so credible aesthetically. I wasn't surprised to read in the production notes that a Dairy Queen counter girl who serves the lead character Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) a vanilla Blizzard is in fact a real-life DQ worker. Payne's visual style is as modest and unassuming as a Nebraska landscape, and his narrative matches it. Payne sets it up cleanly and masterfully: a few shots of downtown high-rises, incongruous on the windswept plain, are followed by the close-up of an office clock, whose hands are inexorably moving to 5 p.m., and, finally, the medium shot of Warren Schmidt, a midlevel insurance executive -- an actuary, in fact -- waiting patiently for his retirement to begin. In just one minute, Payne tells us a lot about Schmidt and his environment.

Payne's patience never subsides, either, as the plot unhurriedly follows Schmidt from a stilted gathering at a local steak house to the no-place-to-go emptiness as the digital clock shows 7 a.m., and to the newly-purchased Winnebago, promising the open-road adventure that an American retiree considers his birthright. Corrupted by the flippancy of sitcom one-liners and the gimmicky flourishes of other Brilliant Young Directors, the audience grows wary: there has to be a flat tire in this vehicle, a blowup on Schmidt's path, blared by a "you-can't-handle-the-truth" third-act monologue. Payne sets up the lures: Schmidt's wife dies, and soon he finds out she was carrying on with his best friend. En route to his daughter's wedding, Schmidt stops at a trailer park, where he almost gives in to sexual temptation. Finally, he has great misgivings about his daughter's fiancé and his family and tries to talk her out of the marriage -- but every single wild-and-crazy Hollywood cliché has been skirted and left out of the picture. There are no conventional Hollywood surprises here, which may well be the biggest surprise of them all.

Payne avoids fanfare studiously: when Schmidt faces off with his two-faced friend, the scene resembles anything but a Hollywood fight of knockdown punches; rather, it's a clumsy melee between two paunchy elderly men who have spent their entire lives at their desks. On the spur of the moment, Schmidt attempts, with equal clumsiness, to kiss a kindly woman while her husband steps out to buy beer. Payne again avoids high volume, letting his spurned hero drive off, half ashamed and half afraid of the consequences. He spares the audience's natural dramatic instincts, allowing some suspense into the final scene at the wedding -- but, once again, the drama-less resolution comes as no surprise. Schmidt returns to his golden years of quiet despair, a little wiser and a whole lot more miserable.

Schmidt is appalled by his daughter's fiancé, a waterbed salesman and a mediocrity par excellence, and the rest of the Hertzels (the name was kept from the novel, which made much of Schmidt's resentment about having Jewish in-laws), who are some sort of aging hippies (an all-too-familiar target nowadays). His effort is as awkward as his previous attempts at fighting and seducing. But are his apprehensions justified? We don't really know: yes, the future in-laws are an uncouth bunch, but then Schmidt's image of his daughter may be somewhat exaggerated, too -- she is a humble shipping clerk, rather than a communications executive, as he claims -- and who knows? The Hertzels' let-it-all-hang-out attitude might be a welcome respite from Schmidt's buttoned-up primness.

Payne's sense of style is impeccable, and the writing is crisp throughout (he co-wrote with Jim Taylor). Only this quality saves him in the subplot that involves Schmidt's sending money to a six-year-old in Tanzania. Because Schmidt has no one to talk to, he turns writing letters to the boy into a kind of a diary. Voiceover is not my favorite device -- a lazy writer's resort when he can't depict a character through dialogue and action -- but in this case at least it serves to deepen our sense of Schmidt's inability to come to terms with himself. And it adds a nice absurd-comedic touch: I'll take a 6-year-old illiterate Tanzanian boy as a recipient of the hero's misery over any American shrink, whether Dr. Malfi in The Sopranos or Judd Hirsch in -- ugh -- Robert Redford's Ordinary People.

Much has been and will be written about Jack Nicholson's performance as Schmidt, mostly in the standard terms of Hollywood hero-worship. What a daring switch from the Jake of Chinatown and Satan of Eastwick and the Madman of The Shining, etc, etc. True, Nicholson's roles were varied, but, taken individually, they were different variations on the cool-and-crazy color scheme; in Schmidt, something more low-key, nuanced along Sir Anthony Hopkins' lines, would have been a better fit. The role stands an excellent chance of getting an Oscar -- this is the kind of "daring" Hollywood loves, and who is more of a Hollywood insider than Nicholson? -- but it creates a paradox in the movie's heart. Payne and Taylor know their Omahans, and give Schmidt a certain respect, while Nicholson, unable to get over his Hollywood bias, tries to play it for laughs. His Schmidt is an aw-shucks Nebraska bumpkin who jumps out of a hot tub when Ms. Herzel (played with much more sensibility by Kathy Bates) makes a pass at him. Imagine how hilarious the whole scene would seem to a California lothario like Mr. Nicholson, who uses this opportunity to display the extensive collection of facial tics that he polished in films such as As Good As It Gets.

By contrast, Mr. Payne's directorial performance is all nuance. From the never-opened boxes Schmidt brings home from his office to his visiting the schmaltzy museum dedicated to Nebraska pioneers, the film is a tough balancing act between empathy and satire -- not just of Schmidt, but of Schmidt's America as well. The film is open enough to suggest that A) Mr. Payne injected enough mockery of Boobus Americanus to please the Coasts and at the same time enough feeling to allay the anxieties of the Middle America. Or, B) he did produce a seamless blend of parody and humanity. Mr. Payne loves America, but he never loses sight of each and every wart on its face. This is a combination few artists manage to pull off, and, come April, it will definitely put Mr. Payne and his film on the Oscar stage.

[rating: 3.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: New Line Cinema
Movie Web site: About Schmidt



Photo credits: © 2002 New Line Cinema, Inc. All rights reserved.