movie film review | chris tookey

About Schmidt

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  About Schmidt Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.91 /10
Warren Schmidt: Jack Nicholson , Jeannie: Hope Davis
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Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor , based on the novel by Louis Begley

Released: 2002
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 0

A man in his Sixties re-evaluates his life.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Two weeks before this came out, I predicted that Daniel Day-Lewis was a safe bet to win Best Actor at the Oscars for Gangs of New York. But that was before I'd seen About Schmidt, which contains the best-ever performance by arguably the greatest American screen actor of all time.

Jack Nicholson has the huge advantage of working from a first-rate screenplay. Co-writers Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne were the creative team responsible for catapulting Reese Witherspoon to stardom, as the appalling student politician Tracy Flick in Election. I gave that film five stars, and this one's even better.

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is an insurance actuary used to analysing the statistical probabilities governing everyone else's life. However, his own comfortable existence comes to a crisis when speeches at his retirement dinner make him ponder the seeming futility of his life.

A fundamentally decent man but without very much intellectual or cultural curiosity - he is obviously meant in some ways to personify the wealthy, complacent old USA - he sees a TV charity appeal and decides to "adopt" a 6 year-old Tanzanian child by sending him 22 dollars a month.

He also writes the first of a series of letters, in which he thinks he's giving fatherly advice, but really is revealing his anguish in a way that he never could to his wife of 42 years (June Squibb).

When his wife suddenly drops dead while vacuuming, Schmidt misses her more than he would have thought possible - and then discovers that perhaps he never knew her at all.

Angered and disappointed with the vacuum in his own life, he finds a new mission. He decides to dissuade his daughter (Hope Davis) from marrying her hairy nincompoop of a fiance (Dermot Mulroney with a marvellously terrible mullet haircut, ponytail and Mexican-style moustache).

Schmidt turns into a veteran Easy Rider, travelling across America in an oversized Winnebago, until he arrives at his daughter's prospective earth-mother-in-law (Kathy Bates), where his worst suspicions grow into certainty that his daughter deserves better.

Jack Nicholson has often been guilty of playing to the gallery, but here he completely inhabits the role. There isn't a moment of untruthfulness in his performance, not a flicker of amusement in his eyes to show he is aware of Schmidt's shortcomings.

But Nicholson is also the most charmingly roguish of superstars, and he uses that quality to make a man you might easily dismiss as boring into someone utterly compelling, and just enough of a loose cannon to keep us guessing as to which way he will turn.

The film might be said to be a satire on Americans in general, but it could equally well be about the British. The film's sardonic take on humanity resembles something that Alan Ayckbourn or Mike Leigh would have been proud to write at their funniest and bleakest.

Inevitably, this means that a few critics from across the political spectrum will call the film patronising or condescending. Both accusations are misguided, for About Schmidt takes great care to see every point of view. Unlike most social satires, the film is just as critical of "alternative" values as it is of conservative ones.

Admittedly, all the characters are seen initially through the eyes of the disgruntled, deeply conservative Schmidt - who makes the late Kingsley Amis look like a ray of sunshine. It's hard not to share his squeamishness at the vulgarity of other people's home furnishings, their crass disregard of other people's feelings and their ingratitude for the charity of others.

But the irony is that he is guilty of all these faults too; and the miracle of the screenplay is that it allows us to see Schmidt not only as he sees himself, but through the eyes of his daughter, whose life he is trying to control after what she regards as a lifetime of neglect; her prospective mother-in-law, who's as emotionally open as she is alarmingly sexual; and his prospective son-in-law, who regards him as a sad old man who's out of touch with his own emotions. All three are very recognisable as characters drawn from life, not cruel caricatures - and every one of them is beautifully and sympathetically played.

Jack Nicholson made a telling point at this week's Golden Globes when he picked up the award for Best Actor in a Drama: "I don't know whether to be happy or ashamed," he remarked ironically, "since we started off making a comedy."

About Schmidt shows that the making of great comedies is a serious business. It resembles Evelyn Waugh's tragic-comic novels (especially Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust) , in that it dares to stare into the abyss at the meaninglessness of human existence, but ends up laughing at the myriad ways we try to cope with our own insignificance.

For all its underlying melancholy, this is a very funny movie - and a highly intelligent one. I particularly admired the way the screenplay revealed its themes and characters, without ever becoming predictable or telling us how we should feel.

Especially brilliant is the use of Schmidt's voice-over (often quoting hilariously from his pompous letters to that Tanzanian six year-old). It never means what Schmidt thinks it means, and constantly undermines the dignity and probity of his actions.

If The Pledge was Jack Nicholson's King Lear, About Schmidt is his Tempest. Like the wizard Prospero, Schmidt is a man coming to terms with failing powers and the marriage of his daughter to someone he dismisses as far inferior to himself.

In the end, like Shakespeare's last hero, Schmidt finds grace and, to some extent, redemption. Some will find the ending sentimental. Others will feel that Schmidt doesn't do enough to deserve it. Perhaps not; but an audience is entitled to feel some hope at the end of a film that so often plumbs the depths of despair.

Besides, the central theme of this film is charity, or the lack of it, and it's a satisfying conclusion for our hero to rediscover his own generosity of spirit. This is, as Nicholson says, a comedy - but one that shows how comedy can be just as profound and revelatory as drama.

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