Comfortable and Furious

About Schmidt

Directed by Alexander Payne

Based on the novel by Louis Begley

– Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt
– Hope Davis as Jeannie Schmidt
– Dermont Mulroney as Randall Hertzel
– Kathy Bates gets naked!

Everyone who sees About Schmidt is probably going to comment on how Jack Nicholson played the anti-Nicholson. How his performance as Warren Schmidt, recently retired and widowed insurance actuary, is such a departure from the roles Nicholson usually plays that it merits an Oscar. I’m sure they will use phrases like “an acting tour de force,” and such claptrap comments. Here, I looked some up. Roger Ebert says, “It is an act of self-effacement that Nicholson is able to inhabit Schmidt and give him life and sadness.” That jerk off who writes for Rolling Stone wrote, “By banking his fires and staying alert to the smallest details, he delivers a monumental performance that blasts your expectations and batters your heart.” I say hogwash. That was Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson through and through.

Film critics, more so than even dreaded NFL commentators, follow party line thinking to a T. In other words, once the press release goes out that says Jack is the “anti-Jack” in About Schmidt, then so be it. If somebody says, “the smart money is on Nicholson to win a 4th Best Actor Oscar” then it must be so. Memory length being somehow directly tied to attention span, there is hardly any mention of the fact that old Jack played a very similar understated type of washed up character as Jerry Black in Sean Penn’s criminally underrated The Pledge. In fact, what I consider to be Nicholson’s finest performance, that of Jake Gittes in Chinatown, is one that for most of the film, Jack played very close to the vest. Jake is a fish out of water for most of that film, just like Warren Schmidt is here in this one. Apparently though, subtly is not a coveted virtue in critic land, so when Nicholson doesn’t turn in an overbaked ham of a performance like he does in As Good As It Gets or A Few Good Men, his parts go unnoticed. The Crossing Guard, Blood and Wine, etc. Maybe it is because he looked so damn old or folks are starting to realize just how many drugs this dude has done, but Nicholson’s performance in About Schmidt is generating an unusual amount of press hype. I think the industry wants to pin one more award on him before he croaks, and that new Adam Sandler flick (Anger Management) ain’t going to bring home the bacon.

In About Schmidt there is maybe half of an hour where you aren’t aware you’re looking at Jack “The Joker” Nicholson. There is never a moment in the film where I believed that his character would be married to that dopey wife of his. As much as Jack tries to hide it, he has way too much life inside of him to properly portray Warren R. Schmidt. But so what? Schmidt is a good movie, but it ain’t no Chinatown Heck, it is not even Election. Schmidt’s biggest revelation is that once he’s dead and all of the people that know him are dead, there won’t be any evidence of him left. He’s 66 years old and he just figured this out? That’s the kind of shit that used to keep me up nights when I was seven. Everyone is worried about their legacy. Isn’t that why most people have children? To produce something that will outlive them.

Some will argue that there are a whole lotta folks in the world (Midwest) who have never given consideration to this type of thought before. For sure the two morons behind me at the theater never had, since they both muttered, “Whoa,” right after Schmidt voiced that feeling. I guess that’s my problem with About Schmidt. It is too middle of the road, too ordinary. In the end, Schmidt realizes what most of us do, that it is our relationships with others that count, not monumental accomplishments. Along the way though, he doesn’t really establish any relationships, save for a six-year-old African boy. In fact, Schmidt is kind of a pathetic putz. If any actor other than Nicholson had played him, we would have felt no sympathy for the man whatsoever. I remember commenting to Erich as we walked out of the theater that the script let Nicholson down. It didn’t go deep enough, it didn’t try hard enough. Nicholson however, did. An Oscar? Smart money is… shut up.

By this point, you probably want some plot. OK, here goes. After a lifetime on the job at a very well represented Omaha insurance company, Warren R. Schmidt retires. He’s been married for 42 years and has a daughter named Jeannie who is, “A little past her prime” and is about to marry a “nincompoop” named Randall in not-to-far off Denver. Immediately, Schmidt realizes that his life has no meaning. He tries seeing if they could use his help back at the office, but they don’t need him. To either pass the time or add meaning to his life, Schmidt sponsors a starving African child named Ndugu. Along with the check for $22 he is supposed to send in every month, the welcome packet encourages him to write a letter containing “personal information” to Ndugu. This proves to be cathartic for Schmidt as he pours his heart and soul out like never before in his life. In fact, the only times we see Schmidt make any progress as a character are during his confessions to little Ndugu. These are actually some of the best parts of the movie. Especially when in describing his hardtack wife he pens, “Everynight I wake up and think ‘who is this old woman that lives in my home?’”

Then suddenly, (though you could see it coming) Schmidt’s wife dies. Schmidt not so much falls apart as nothing happens. He wasn’t much before his wife died and he is even less without her. So, he resolves that he is going to help his daughter to not screw up her life. He sets off in a big old Winnebago to stop her from marrying Randall. Along the way, he has some road adventures and while his resolve is strong, he just doesn’t have it in him to stop Jeannie from marrying the “nincompoop.” Instead, he winds up litteraly giving away the bride at the wedding. He leaves Denver and returns to Omaha broken, destitute and probably suicidal. Then he gets a letter from Ndugu that contains a painting of Schmidt and Ndugu holding hands. Schmidt cries, credits role. There was just too little character development for me to really, really care one way or the other. If Schmidt had started a big brawl at the wedding in order to stop it, I would have felt about the same.

That’s not to say that the characters were weak. On the contrary, what I liked most about About Schmidt were the strong characterizations of Midwestern folk. As chance would have it, I spent a little time working for Mutual of Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska. That was a perfect depiction of what life is like inside of a large, Midwest insurance firm. Those people go to work early, eat steak and die. Even better, was Payne’s spot on send up of Denver and its denizens. I could not have agreed more. Nothing but the Broncos, New Age horseshit and pyramid schemes. Did I mention crystals? Point being, the critique of Colorado ruled.

In summation, I feel I know what Payne and novelist Louis Begley were trying to do. It’s just that I don’t find it believable. Maybe if they had shown us a little bit of what Schmidt was like before he retired I might be more of a cheerleader, but I just have a hard time believing that it would take 66 years for a person to figure this sort of stuff out. Again, and to quote George Carlin, “I figured this shit out alone in the third grade.” And especially with someone as potent and awesome as Nicholson in the title role – the movie felt more like that crappy Nicholas Cage movie The Family Man where a character just gets dropped into an unfamiliar situation and has to find a way to deal. About Schmidt is a good movie. The problem is that with that particular combination of actor and director, it really should have been great.

Ruthless Ratings

  • Overall: 6.5
  • Direction: 6
  • Acting: 8
  • Story: 4
  • Re-watchability: 3

Special Ruthless Ratings

  • Number of times you thought Jack looked real old: 20
  • Number of times you thought the woman playing his wife looked 50 years older: 25
  • Number of times you thought Randall’s ironic mullet showed that the director is about two years behind the times: 23
  • Number of times you wondered if people with mullets realize that they are the butt of 1 out of 5 jokes that originate in California: 57
  • Number of times you wanted to get a motor home before About Schmidt: 2
  • Number of times after: 2
  • Number of times you thought – at age 66 – you would have jumped Kathy Bates’ bones: 67
  • Number of times the retards behind me repeated a line that someone on screen had just spoken: 16
  • Number of times I should have said something: 16
  • Number of times I did: 0 — But, I squirmed around passive aggressively every time they spoke…