Saturday, March 1, 2008

Rewind: About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)

At the risk of further feeding the perception that I am a septuagenarian trapped in a twenty-four-year-old body, I should disclose that About Schmidt is my favorite movie. In defense of my musty taste, however, the title of this film could very well have been A Letter to a Young American Man; this movie should not be relevant only to the AARP set.

The movie opens on a dreary day, in a dreary office, with a dreary Omahan backdrop. And it remains at a dreary pace while it characterizes Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) as a plodding, recently-retired actuary so emotionally detached that the first time he actually shows an earnest interest in the world around him is when he catches a television ad for childreach, a charity devoted to the children of the third-world. And the first time he genuinely smiles is when he marches into his old office eager to help his younger replacement adjust to his former job. Alas, the young upstart does not need help with the "pre-teen mortality risk models," and a dejected Schmidt sees his lifetime's work piled beside a dumpster in the company's basement.

The movie picks up both in pace and humor when Schmidt sits down to write a letter to Ndugu, the six-year-old Tanzanian boy he sponsors with a twenty-two dollar check each month. In the letter, Schmidt provides some family history, madly scribbles against the upstart actuary who replaced him, laments the bane of old age, and regrets his unrealized potential as a businessman (this scene features a depressing transition from Schmidt's mug on a fantastic Fortune magazine cover to his all-too-real mugshot in his company's internal newsletter). Schmidt also writes a laundry list of all the ways his wife, Helen (June Squibb), annoys him (especially humorous is the emasculating admission that she requires him to sit when he pees) and admits he often asks himself, "Who is this old woman who lives in my house?" The background music and Schmidt's mood sweeten, though, when his attention turns to his geographically-inconvenient daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis). Over a montage of childhood photos and retrospective videos, Schmidt waxes elegantly about the daughter who'll "always be [his] little girl" and launches a diatribe against Jeannie's mullet-bearing fiance, Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Schmidt immediately delivers the letter to the Post Office (he figures Ndugu probably can't wait to cash the twenty-two dollar check to get himself something to eat), but returns to find Helen dead on the kitchen floor. The camera focuses on the vacuum cleaner lying by Helen's side and the intended message is clear: We are witnessing a man whose life has gradually been sucked out of him.

To avoid spoiling the remainder of the film (not to mention making this review a full day's work), I'll close by saying that most of the symbolism in the movie works (the director, Alexander Payne does overreach a little bit with his The Death of Marat imagery at around 46:00), and the humor is dry, but spot-on. As for Nicholson, the film critic Stanley Kauffman probably said it best when he wrote that Nicholson's performance in About Schmidt "stands as a poignant marker in the career of a major artist."

I'll take his word for it.

- John C.L. Morgan

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