FILM REVIEW: About Schmidt (2002)

About Schmidt (USA, 2002)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates

As much as I go on about directors in these reviews, there are some films which wouldn't be half as good without the central performance of their star. Alexander Payne's About Schmidt is a clear case in point, featuring Jack Nicholson in his best form for well over a decade. But over and above his commanding turn, the film succeeds as both a drama and a comedy, with a multitude of funny moments and genuine emotional involvement with the characters.It's often the case with independent filmmakers that they strive to depart so far from Hollywood convention that they forget the basic rules of story and character construction. It's great to create a film which unfolds naturally through its characters, but many independent films end up with little more than a bunch of unlikeable, overly quirky or neurotic people wandering around aimlessly for two hours and generally being annoying.Although Alexander Payne is deeply embedded in American indie cinema, he avoids these traps with grace and skill, to deliver a film populated by characters which not only feel real but are genuinely likeable. Contrary to what Noah Baumbach may think, real people do not spend their every waking hour complaining about their lives or putting other people down, no matter how troubled or depressed they are. A lot of the time people talk nonsense or embarrass themselves, and they don't sound like they spent the past ten minutes rehearsing every word of the next scene.Payne's screenplay (co-written with Jim Taylor) embraces this aspect of humanity for what it is. His direction and treatment of the characters is very hands-off: he never feels the need for an obvious artistic flourish to create something 'distinctive', nor to push the characters in a given direction that would feel contrived. His focus is constantly on maintaining the realism of the situations that unfold and the naturally uncomfortable moments which are allowed to emerge. It's a triumph of understated writing and direction which puts About Schmidt streets ahead of The Squid and the Whale.If the script is a royal flush, then Jack Nicholson is the ace up Payne's sleeve. In About Schmidt he delivers what is to date his last truly great performance, a masterclass of subtlety and ambiguity which is so far removed from his image as an over-the-top, scenery-chewing hell-raiser. It's as though he took the role as a means to giving the finger to all the critics who derided him for slipping into self-parody so often in the years following The Shining.There have been many occasions in recent memory when Nicholson has phoned in his neurotic, smart alec shtick - think of The Witches of Eastwick, As Good As It Gets and certain portions of Batman. But he remains a great actor, who unlike his good friend Marlon Brando didn't just give up when the pay cheques got big enough. Seeing his performance here, I am reminded of the famous line from Sunset Boulevard: "I am [still] big. It's the pictures that got small."Payne directs Nicholson to do as little as possible as Warren R. Schmidt, a decision which works like a dream. Because the character's movements are so small, and Nicholson's diction so weary and leaden, you soon forget you're watching Nicholson playing a crotchety old guy: he becomes a crotchety, sad, frustrated old man, who just happens to be played by Jack Nicholson. This means that when things threaten to get wacky or kooky, the film generally keeps its feet on the ground, anchored by a man who feels constantly unable to express what he really wants to say.About Schmidt is a film about ageing and retirement, particularly about how the relationships we have built up in our working life alter dramatically when we are deemed too old to keep coming into the office. Following his impersonal sending-off party, Schmidt finds that he is quickly forgotten at his workplace in spite of his long years of service. His former boss tells him he can drop by any time, but when he does his replacement is quick to brush him off, telling him in the kindest possible way that he is no longer needed.Schmidt's personal relationships also suffer. In the absence of a work-related routine, his wife Helen (June Squibb) becomes more domineering, making him pay for a Winnebago and picking up on all his habits. Schmidt reciprocates, making a long list in his first letter to Ndugu about all the aspects of his wife that he can't stand. He disapproves of his daughter's marriage, reacting as badly to her defiance of him as to her fiancee's gesture of friendship. The longer the film goes on, the lonelier Schmidt becomes, and the more he begins to think that his whole life has been for nothing.In its blend of pathos, droll wit and fatalism, About Schmidt bears an uncanny resemblance to Krapp's Last Tape, Samuel Beckett's brilliant 1958 play about an old man listening to tape recordings of his younger self, with a general sense of futility and resentment about past, present and future. There is less emphasis on Schmidt's past than there is on Krapp's, but in both cases the main action has already passed. The characters are in terminal decline, not only in physical health but in motivation, with an increasing sense that every commitment they have made in life means precious little to anyone anymore, least of all to them.That's not to say that About Schmidt is all doom and gloom. In fact it's a barrel of laughs, and not all of them consist of wry smiles in the corners of one's mouth. Some of the set-pieces are hilarious, such as Nicholson trying to get settled on the waterbed, or the famous scene of him and Kathy Bates sharing awkward glances in the crowded hot tub. The script is full of cracking lines, many of which go to Bates: she offers Nicholson some pills for his neck pain with the reassurance that "these were left over from my hysterectomy".Payne's timing as a director is impeccable and his long-time editor Kevin Tent allows the payoffs and punch-lines the time they need to breathe. The slow, thoughtful pace of both the film and Nicholson's dialogue gives us time to take in and laugh at his facial tics and expressions - especially when he's on the hysterectomy pills. The running joke of Schmidt taking out his anger by writing to a child is a consistent highlight: whenever the words "Dear Ndugu" come up in the voiceover, we know we're going to laugh for a good five minutes.But About Schmidt's self-deprecating comedy has poignant intentions behind it, which are revealed in the final scene. Schmidt returns home from the wedding further alienated from his daughter to find that someone has written to him on Ndugu's behalf. He reads the letter, which expresses gratitude at all he has done for the boy, and he slowly but surely bursts into tears. Having gone through two hours of sad sympathy for this man, we find him joyously vindicated, and we share in the joy that his life has benefited someone, even in an unconscious way.About Schmidt is a great comedy-drama which finds both director and star at the top of their game. Despite occasional moments which are slow or seem overly quirky, there is so much to cherish in these characters that you either forgive such flaws or quickly learn to overlook them. Whether Nicholson manages to turn in another performance like this in his remaining career remains to be seen. But on the basis of this, one of these every ten years would be well worth waiting for.

Verdict: Poignant, pathos-ridden and painfully funny


Post a Comment