About Schmidt (2002): Alexander Payne’s Melancholy Satire, Starring Jack Nicholson in Top Form

Whether or not they are set on the road, all of Alexander Payne’s films are road stories, if by that concept we mean journeys of self-discovery.

This follow-up to “Election,” which was a critical success but commercial failure, “About Schmidt,” world-premiered in competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Fest and was the winner of Best Picture of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

It is a poignant serio comedy, a witty character study with a towering performance from Jack Nicholson, at the top of his form.

Adapting to the screen the novel by Louis Begley and an earlier draft of Alexander Payne called “The Coward,” Payne and his reliable co-writer Jim Taylor have completely reworked the source material, eliminating (among other things) the protagonist’s anti-Semitic tendencies.

In this sardonic tale on norms and mores of the Midwest (Payne’s specialty), Nicholson plays the title role, Warren Schmidt, an ordinary, unexceptional American, on the last day of work at the insurance company.

In the beginning, it’s unclear whether Schmidt is just a hollow man, lacking purpose and ambition, or just a product of attrition of modern life.

After decades of service to Omaha’s Woodsmen of the World Insurance Company, Schmidt is ready to quit, sitting quietly, eagerly watching the clock on the wall until it kicks 5pm.  He can’t wait for the last day of his work, though we get the impression that the boring workday rituals have assumed a sacred meaning.

“Don’t dillydally!” Schmidt is admonished by his longtime wife, just before she dies, and he doesn’t.  When his wife of 42 years, whom he can barely stand anymore, suddenly dies, he sighs with relief but also some sadness. A placid dullard, Schmidt hops into a Winnebago for a cross-country journey to the wedding of his estranged daughter Jeanine (Hope Davis).

The odyssey turns out to be more picaresque, revelatory and odd than he had ever anticipated. Along the way, we get to know Schmidt, who’s not a bad man, just detached and alienated from others—as well as from himself.  In fact, he is so deluded that he doesn’t even realize how much he is lost. It’s the task of the narrative to humanize Schmidt by bringing him into closer touch with his feelings—and to express them.

Gradually, the movie loses its sardonic tone and pathos for Schmidt, and embraces a warmer perspective that reveals the humanity of an otherwise mediocre man.

The movie contains voice over narration, as Schmidt reads aloud his letters to an African orphan he had adopted; they always begin with “Dear Ndugo.”

With meticulous attention to detail and nuance, Nicholson, for a change playing a man of his real age, initially embraces Warren’s human failure and his inability to see it, but he makes it by turns funny, sad, and, touching.

Payne’s sensibility has been compared to that of Preston Sturges, but in this film, there are also touches of Frank Capra.  On one level, the movie celebrates the mundane life of an average Midwestern insurance actuary.  But on another, it shows how the most mundane life could become extraordinary as a result of some unanticipated events and random encounters.

Although “About Schmidt” is a social satire, and in some scenes a broad comedy, at its core, it’s a tribute to a resilient and decent American Everyman, who’s still capable enough to introduce changes in his life.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actor: Jack Nicholson
Supporting Actress: Kathy bates

Oscar Awards: None

 

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actor was Adrien Brody for “The Pianist.”  The Supporting Actress Oscar went to Catherine Zeta-Jones for the musical “Chicago.”

Cast

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson)
Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates)
Jeanine Schmidt (Hope Davis)
Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney)
Helen Schmidt (June Squibb)
Larry Hertzel (Howard Hesseman)
Ray Nichols (Len Cariou)
John Rusk (Harry Groener)
Vicki Rusk (Connie Ray)
Duncan Hertzel (Mark Venhuizen)

Credits:

Running time: 125 Minutes

Produced by Micahel Besman and Harry Gittes
Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley
Camera: James Glennon
Editing: Kevin Tent
Music: Rolfe Kent

 

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