About Schmidt (2002)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.

Director – Alexander Payne; writers – Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor; based on the novel by Louis Begley; director of photography – James Glennon; editor – Kevin Tent; music – Rolfe Kent; production designer – Jane Ann Stewart; producers – Harry Gittes and Michael Besman. Starring – Jack Nicholson (Warren Schmidt), Kathy Bates (Roberta Hertzel), Hope Davis (Jeannie), Dermot Mulroney (Randall Hertzel), Howard Hesseman (Larry), Len Cariou (Ray) and June Squibb (Helen Schmidt). New Line Cinema. 125 minutes. Rated R.

[NOTE: This was a first-impression review written when About Schmidt opened in 2002. In restoring it to LookingCloser.org, I've made a few small edits. I should note that when I wrote this, I was frustrated with Alexander Payne's films. Since then, I have been more impressed with subsequent films like Sideways and the short he directed for Paris, je t'aime. In those films, he seemed less inclined to portray his characters with condescension and contempt, but found warmth and real heart in many of them.]

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) has worked his whole life selling insurance. Now he is literally watching the clock tick down to his retirement. This should be a time to celebrate, to reflect, to look forward. Why then is Schmidt sneaking away from the table at his own retirement party, furrowing his brow alone at the bar, and tossing back stiff drinks as if the world is ending?

In the first few minutes of About Schmidt… in fact, in the very first shot of the film… it becomes clear: Warren is realizing the emptiness of his life. His work has not given him fulfillment. His marriage is lifeless, stifling, and ugly. The only joy of his life, his daughter (Hope Davis), is off getting married to someone that he does not respect.

Is it too late? Can he find meaning and fulfillment before it’s too late?

About Schmidt has become one of the year’s most acclaimed films, and for good reason. It features a solid performance by Jack Nicholson, and an array of good performances by a strong supporting cast. Writer/director Alexander Payne refrains from the easy sentimentality of many life-epiphany stories, making each of his characters believably flawed, and refusing to give his central character the typical Hollywood happy ending.

Payne may be restrained and skilled as a filmmaker, but the question remains: What is he telling us about the world?

Unfortunately, the film has very little more to reveal about Warren than it says in that opening sequence. Warren’s life is empty. He has failed to invest himself in meaningful things. And the world is cold, impersonal, lonely, and disappointing. He makes one concerted attempt at kindness: He begins sending donations to a child relief effort, hoping to help a boy named Ngudu. But that does not soften him toward others. It becomes instead an opportunity to vent his bitterness and frustrations, as he naively fills letters to the poor child with anger and ignorance.

Scenes at the end of the film will convince many viewers that  Warren has made some kind of breakthrough. As tears appeared on his face, many of my fellow moviegoers wept along with him, seemingly happy that he had finally made a connection.

But we would do well to ask: Has Warren really turned over a new leaf? Has he made a meaningful connection, or had a helpful epiphany? Do we come away hopeful that he has come to a point of understanding and change? Have we seen any evidence that he is questioning his relentlessly selfish behavior? Or are these the tears of a man who is still unable to wring any joy or redemption from his life?

Personally, I struggled to see any convincing evidence that Warren is learning to love anybody.

I find the easiest way to explain my impression of this film is to contrast it with two other films about old men who try to do something meaningful at the end of their lives before it is too late The Straight Story and Ikiru. About Schmidt is like The Straight Story and Ikiru without the beauty, the warmth, the delightful discoveries along the way, and the hope.

1. About Schmidt lacks the beautiful cinematography of The Straight Story and Ikiru, which made them lyrical and full of visual poetry. In fact, the imagery in Schmidt is grey, green, and dull. This may represent Warren’s tainted view of life, but it may also betray the filmmaker’s own perspective on the world. And it makes for an unpleasant viewing experience. Outside of a few nice panoramic shots of the open road, my eyes were bored.

2. Take away the believably warm and interesting people that came out to meet Alvin Straight along the road in The Straight Story, and the inspiring coworker who changes Mr. Watanabe’s life in Ikiru. Put in their place characters imprisoned by their own ugly flaws, operating on their own selfish agendas. (At least the exaggerated characters of the Coen Brothers’ films are likeable and redeemable. Payne’s are just foolish, empty, and even repulsive, so far.) Only Dermot Mulroney’s character seems to have good intentions, but he ends up looking like a buffoon.

3. Now, take away the silences of Straight Story, and the thoughtful, reflective passages of Ikiru, which gave us room to think about what Alvin Straight and Mr. Watanabe were feeling and thinking. Instead, we get Warren’s voice-overs, which tell everything the film is failing to show. Each installment begins with a joke at Schmidt‘s expense: “Dear Ngudu…” This comical display of Warren’s insensitivity and ignorance gets old fast, but it happens again and again….

4. Take away the main character’s backstory. Alvin Straight offers us no voice-over narration. Out of a few sketchy conversations with others, we come to suspect things about his past. We hear echoes of his experience at war. But nothing is shoved in our faces. His exchanges with others are handled with great delicacy.

In Ikiru, Mr. Wantanabe’s story is given perfunctory narration, but there’s plenty of room for us to interpret what is going on in his heart and in the world around him from suggestive imagery.

Schmidt’s character, on the other hand, is spelled out too clearly. And all the reasons we should pity him are shoved in our faces — not excepting his wife’s smelly armpit, which goes right into the camera. (The armpit shot is a telling example of Payne’s tactless way of introducing us to characters and their many unpleasantries.) In fact, Payne’s way of filming people is just like his way of filming sides of beef: every time we see meat in this film, its the messiest, fattiest, most disgusting view imaginable.

5. The music is fumbling and unmemorable. While Alvin Straight’s journey moves along with melody and whimsy and character, and Ikiru is given depth by the inclusion of revealing songs, Warren Schmidt’s has one of those increasingly familiar, overly simple American Beauty-like motifs. The music swoons into sentimentality whenever Schmidt has a realization or an epiphany. (The privilege of epiphany is never granted to other characters. They’re all bound by their flaws or their ignorance.)

6. The resolution is no resolution at all. Alvin Straight is clearly a changed man at the end. He has made his journey, made his connection. Ikiru ventures beyond the story of Mr. Watanabe to show how a few simple gestures made a profound impression upon all kinds of people. By contrast, Warren Schmidt returns home fuming about the people he’s just had the misfortunate of spending time with. Thus, his whole speech at the wedding (which was making my fellow moviegoers tear up and sigh in deep emotion) is a lie. He’s praising people that he still resents in his heart. Why? To spare his daughter’s feelings. Okay, it’s a good thing that he cares about his daughter’s feelings, but it’s still a lie.

Thankfully, there are a few moments of warmth and life in this film. I applaud Kathy Bates and Dermot Mulroney. Even though Payne’s script directs us to laugh at the expense of their characters, exploiting their preoccupations and their simple-mindedness, the actors fill up those roles with warmth and humor. When they’re onscreen, the movie is not half so unpleasant.

There was one moment in the film that that felt true to me. Warren’s daughter Elaine confronts him at one point, saying “Oh, now you have an opinion?” This points out Schmidt’s primary problem. He does not reach out. He does not get involved with others, except when it serves to scratch his itching conscience. I thought there was potential there for Schmidt to learn and grow. But the issue is not pursued further. All Warren manages to do is refrain from ruining the wedding. He actually retreats, using his moment in the spotlight not to tell the truth or get involved, but to hide and say crowd-pleasing things… just like Payne is doing.

And about that last scene: [MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

Many find it to be uplifting. Perhaps they’re seeing something I don’t, but if so, I’d like their help. I just don’t see it. We see Warren receive a letter that supposedly confirms he has made a meaningful connection. But the letter looks, upon close examination, suspiciously like a form letter. There is no acknowledgment of the specific details of the letters he has sent. Warren has no way of knowing if he is the victim of another moneymaking scheme, like his dimwitted son-in-law, or if he has actually touched another human being.

Thus, to me, it seems Warren’s climactic breakdown is an outpouring of dismay and emptiness. That itself would be a fine and truthful way to end the film, if it hadn’t been obvious that Schmidt is aware of that emptiness from the very first frame.

The way Payne emphasizes his characters’ ugliness, he might make us wonder why we would want to connect with such unpleasant, self-absorbed people in the first place. He teases us with sentimental flourishes that give us hope of healing and joy. Thus, many viewers feel a sort of emotional inspiration at the conclusion. But I don’t see anything inspiring. I see characters who relentlessly let each other down and fail to connect with each other. Warren is even more isolated at the end than he was at the beginning.

2 Responses to “About Schmidt (2002)”

  1. John Says:

    [EDITOR'S WARNING: John's comment here contains DETAILED SPOILERS about the end of the movie.]

    If you didn’t understand or appreciate “About Schmidt” then you most likely missed the meaning of the scene near the end of the film where Schmidt, after almost completing a road trip of soul searching, weighs his life’s accomplishments at a pit stop in Nebraska (the heart of the America). The scene occurs at a cheesey tourist attraction that commemorates the courage and determination of the early American pioneers on their way west. A sign at this attraction reads “The cowards never started, The weak died on the way, Only the strong arrived, They were the pioneers”. This film is all about recognizing our own inner cowardness and starting the long journey of self discovery.

    What struck me as brilliant about this film was the lack of the extraordinary. This film wiped our nose in the fact that most of us live ordinary unexciting lives. The locations forced us to bare witness to the uninspiring environments that exist all around us and the strange collection of people that inhabit these spaces. If we accept that we can not change what is around us, it will change us. Schmidt was a product of his environment until he dared to venture away from it.

    I was also impressed how the film did not did not attempt to venture into the spectacular. Nothing earth shattering occured. This is how life is. This is why we are so amazed when we ask a decessed family member for undertsanding or forgiveness and notice a shooting star in the heavens at the exact moment we ask this question. Little amazing moments in life add up to become spectacular after you have ventured forth into discovery.

    Another thing I liked about his movie is that it forced us to identify with feelings suuch as lonliness and fear. Schmidt’s only real friend and confidant is a 6 year old African child he has never met. Schmidt wrote to the boy without really thinking too deeply about whether the young boy could really undertsand the complexity of his letters…Schmidt was really writing these letters to himself. The boy sends Schmidt a painting in which he and Schmidt are hand in hand under a big bright sun and both have large smiles. The art work is typical of a 6 year old boy and it’s innocence allows Schmidt to recognize that he never had a connection with the boy…and yet a small connection has begun. The boy represents the point at which Schmidt is in his journey of self realization and a reminder that Schmidt’s life can be full of meaning and happieness if he continues to be brave and travel on westward.

  2. Rose Says:

    John, your comment is fabulous! You really got to the soul of the movie!

    I share the same opinion and I did like the movie for its message and so much because it’s “simple”, like you well put, “did not attempt to venture into the spectacular.” This sense of reality and ordinary life is what seemed to make the movie so believable and kept me set down for 2:05 hours without getting bored. No violence, no fantastic BS, no excessive production, no hypnotizing background music… Just a story about people! Considering that my attention span is very short and the movie kept me on for two hours without even realizing it, I assume it’s a real good movie. I’m picky about movies, but About Schmidt got my appreciation.

    It was also enriching to read your point of view, John!


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