This film failed Jack Nicholson. Not to get overdramatic and weepy eyed, but it also failed movie-goers: mainstream audiences wearing awful sweaters and us intelligent, well-dressed college students. The only people who prosper from watching this film are the lucky few (or metrosexuals who know people who know people) in the hip new-school filmmaking circle jerk – directors who prefer getting the “look” to look “genius” to style that develops naturally and casually envelops a film – a belief utilized by many of their idols throughout the late ’60s and ’70s.
Fifteen minutes into About Schmidt, it’s on track for greatness. The mood is set with austere still-shots of an American “everycity”: sterile skyscrapers, a haunting train whistle, silence, white sky, one car trickling down a street. We gladly find Nicholson as soon-to-be ex-businessman Warren Schmidt, styled with a sharply polite comb over, sitting in an empty “everyoffice”: crosshatched blue walls, desk, phone, silence. White boxes of his stuff line a wall. A clock notches to 5 p.m. After a few solemn glances, he hits the light, and leaves on the dot.
Director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election) is obsessed with detail – he savors it like film buffs savor the wrinkles creasing Nicholson’s 65-year old face. This is perfect for capturing the mundanity of the business aesthetic. Beneath Nicholson’s commendable restraint, his character burns with the race to succeed first, live second. This tension decorates the rooms in his life with creaky emotional furniture.
Schmidt is retiring from “one of the top rated insurance carriers in the nation,” and when Payne aims the camera on the restaurant reserved for his retirement party, it’s clear that Schmidt is not the Warren Buffet or Steve Forbes he once dreamed.
Against an ambiguous Native-American themed background, Schmidt listens to “friends” boost his worth. Superfluous social satire rears its misshapen head when Schmidt’s conveniently younger replacement – dough-eyed, whites flashing, wife in tow – tells his elder to “drop by the office anytime you want.”
Believable enough a line, sure, but the execution is one tier below satire in a doggy bag, dumb downed acting that “slapsticks” Nicholson’s realistic portrayal and cheapens the grave loop of nonidentity the scene needs to symbolize. Only a slight flaw because the actor is to blame (and Schmidt dislikes the character), but an hour later it’s clear that Payne undermines characters to his own liking, extracting juice from stereotypes, which trips up the realism, hampers the story, and leaves one pondering who he is to criticize/satirize securely unfashionable middleclass people.
Fortunately, Jack Nicholson is in the driver’s seat and he cruises through the film inserting masterfully subtle sighs and frowns of disappointment, alienation, and disdain. Outside the office, America does not operate by a cutthroat code of conduct, and this rarely ceases to surprise and offend Schmidt; he is the conservative, polar opposite of Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even his wife (June Squibb) is not exempt – he loathes “the way she sits” and “the way she smells.”
Perhaps this is why he finds sanctuary in “adopting” a young African boy named Ndugu after viewing a commercial where other “Ndugus” have flies around their lips and skeleton frames. You know the ones. Payne presents these commercials/programs cynically – arguable witty perspective – yet at the end he ties a bow (made of crayons) onto the end of the film using Ndugu. This makes for a horribly forced ending – a cop out.
What was once humorous and under fire by a smartass director is now the film’s rainbow-like humane salvation. Unless you tape soap operas, this will explain why you aren’t crying when the credit’s roll, even though Mr. Nicholson does his damnedest to initiate tears.
So, what began as a burgeoning poke at the white American family man’s pinning desperation when time forces him to examine life (without capitalistic purpose), becomes wackly preoccupied by the “hilariously genius” of bad sweaters and hairstyles Mid-westerners wear onscreen. Actor Dermont Mulroney offers comic relief as the mulleted waterbed salesman engaged to Schmidt’s only daughter.
While the role offers a few involuntary guffaws (and how can it not?), it fades in and out of jarring Dumb and Dumber territory. The film’s theme involves an outsider who cannot communicate with others, but when every character besides Schmidt is changing gears between a real person and Payne’s silly caricatures, any scathing, genuine satire diminishes.
In a time of ongoing recession, when thousands of businessmen are watching their stocks closely, Payne could have ushered in a dramatic satire of American desperation as eye opening and sobering as Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. Oddly, this is the film Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, as a confident, overweight hornball, were starring in.
Meanwhile, Payne is too busy taking shots at Tony Roma’s, fashion, Van Halen, and unattractiveness to make us care about Schmidt’s romance with a falling star (c’mon) and his compassion for Ndugu. He wastes a magnificent premise and Jack’s dedication to go masturbate with sophomoric style.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.