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About Schmidt By Matt Singer
I saw About Schmidt on my twenty-second birthday. 21 is an impressive age to tell people, it’s edgy. Now, at 22, I’ll never be a cool age again. From that very cynical perspective, it’s all downhill from here, an interesting frame of mind from which to view this touching dramedy. It may be a film about a man in his twilight years, but Schmidt is not by any means a film that will only appeal to seniors. Anyone of the age required to see it with a reasonable amount of intellect will find something to love about Schmidt. That was a little play on the title, by the way. So little I had to point it out.
In any event, this very funny and very serious little movie will very likely be nominated for a goodly number of Oscars. A Best Actor nomination for star Jack Nicholson is almost a certainty, but I wouldn’t be shocked by nominations for screenplay, supporting actress for Kathy Bates, and even best picture. They are all certainly deserving - here is one holiday release that more than lives up to its hype and positive reviews.
Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, retired after a long career in the insurance industry. He now has to look forward to a retirement where his minor accomplishments are forgotten, his uncouth and rude wife Helen (June Squibb) pushes him around, and his beloved daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) marries a scheming mullet-headed “nincompoop” named Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Schmidt decides to do some good, and sponsor a child in Africa after seeing an ad on television. Soon he is writing letters to foster child Ndugu that reveal things about himself that Schmidt didn’t even realize he had a vocabulary to express.
Schmidt is a completely ordinary Midwesterner, with an ugly head of a hair and a stiff walk that makes him look as if he’s carrying the weight of several other people on his back. You will, of course, recognize Nicholson in the role - he’s still Jack, if a little older, balder, and chubbier. But you quickly begin to recognize him only as Schmidt, this incredibly likable loser stuck inside a world created by director Alexander Payne and his co-screenwriter Jim Taylor (based upon a novel by Louis Begley), in which two weeks can speed away faster than an intertitle and where families find themselves incapable of existing without conflict.
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With Jeannie and Randall’s wedding approaching, Schmidt takes it upon himself to travel to their home in Denver to convince his only daughter that she can do much better than the waterbed salesman she’s picked out for herself. Notice how Mulroney’s Randall is not simply a doofus. He’s a loyal, loving doofus who really cares about Jeannie. Similarly, Kathy Bates plays his mother Roberta for laughs, yet she is also a loving, caring human being, if still a bit wasted from the fun she had in the 60s. The difference between the cast of this movie and most Hollywood movies is striking; each character is gifted (they’d say cursed) with neuroses, issues, and obsessions.
Payne’s direction is rarely flashy, but consistently solid, and his gift with actors creates an even more convincing and fascinating world than his last film, Election. As Schmidt travels in his Winnebago Adventurer, he passes a lot of cattle, consistently noticing their big, sad eyes. The significance of the comparison is open to interpretation. My initial feeling was that Schmidt identifies with cattle being led to the slaughter; with only a few years left to live, he considers himself fodder for the big American machine. Like the cattle, his time on this earth is limited, but he has the opportunity to view himself as freed from the cage he was in for 42 years and can now try to do something meaningful with the time he has left. Moviegoers should heed this advice. I, for one, am trying to listen. Just call me Ndugu.