(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)
Alexander Payne made an amazing leap in 1999 with Election, a film that may well have deserved the Oscar that year. It’s wise and nuanced and complex, with scintillating characters and dialogue. And completely easy to watch. Almost no one makes art like that. A few years later, he’s back with About Schmidt, set again in his home state of Nebraska, but with an added element that surely says all you need to know about Payne’s post-Election credibility: it stars Jack Nicholson.
I don’t mean to take a cheap shot when I say that there’s a problem with any movie that casts Nicholson as an insurance executive who’s let all his chances get away from him. Some of the greatest performances come from casting against type, and Nicholson’s work here is a superior piece of acting, no question about it. But there’s no point pretending we watch movies in a vacuum. Star image contributes to the fabric of a film as surely as the lighting or the music. And About Schmidt has a problem: almost every element of Nicholson’s well-established persona works against the role he’s playing.
Who’s this woman?
For example, Nicholson says in voice over, talking about his tired 42-year-old marriage, that he wakes up every morning and wonders who this old woman is in his bed. June Squibb, the actress playing his wife, is just two years older than Nicholson, so she’s certainly an age-appropriate partner for him. But it’s impossible not to think of his affair with Lara Flynn Boyle and other facets of his legendary reputation. The relationship with Squibb becomes easy to chuckle at and to treat as fanciful, whereas Schmidt’s sense of entrapment should surely be painful.
The problem intensifies once Schmidt’s wife dies. He goes to seed for a while, then sets himself a mission – to abort his daughter’s forthcoming marriage to a man that Schmidt thinks is an idiot (Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney play the couple). He sets off in his Winnebago, reliving some past memories along the way. But Nicholson’s presence skews the film to the point that you don’t know how to take it. In some ways, Schmidt is clearly a creature of his environment, sharing the same basic values, generating the same banal remarks. On the other hand, he senses himself slipping out of sync with those surroundings, and becomes preoccupied by time running out. Nicholson, though, is so inherently out of sync that you can’t help perceiving it as an abstract rather than as an emotional dilemma. The movie, broadly speaking, is about Schmidt’s attempts to find equilibrium after he’s forced into a new phase of his life. But with Nicholson in the role, there’s no possible equilibrium.
Some critics feel more strongly about this than I do. David Edelstein in Slate compared the film to watching an episode of The Twilight Zone: “A Nicholson who doesn’t unleash the full force of his libidinous counterculture energy,” says Edelstein, “is a Nicholson unrealized.” I don’t think that’s quite right – Nicholson kept it bottled up in The Pledge, with great success. But that film was dense with mythmaking – it didn’t need verisimilitude in the way that About Schmidt does.
Every man’s reasons
Another problem with About Schmidt is that it’s primarily a dramatic piece (I think so anyway – the Golden Globes categorized it as a drama rather than a comedy), but it evokes laughs at every turn, and I’m rather uneasy about the source of those laughs. Basically, the film patronizes Midwesterners, reducing them to shallow nincompoops who live entirely through clichés and lack any philosophical perspective on their idiocy. To take one example out of many: in a bedroom decorated with Mulroney’s childhood mementos, the camera sticks on a shot of a certificate he earned for perfect attendance during some low-grade two-week college course. It gets a big laugh from the audience. But it tells us nothing new about the character, and it’s just an easy little dig at a culture that would recognize such limited accomplishment, and of a person who would accept it as a compliment. Fine, but as laughs go it’s like stealing candy from a baby, and where does it get you?
In slightly more considerate hands, About Schmidt might have drawn on Jean Renoir’s famous dictum (I apologize for once again using one of the most over-quoted lines in cinema): Every man has his reasons. Schmidt thinks Mulroney’s character is a fool who’s unworthy of his daughter, and he dreams of sabotaging the wedding, but in the end he keeps his mouth shut and plays along. “Look at these people!” he declares vis a vis Mulroney’s family, but there’s no substantive way in which he’s better than them (unless, of course, you see him as Jack Nicholson rather than as Warren Schmidt). Indeed, maybe that’s the main thing Schmidt should have been forced to realize. Either way, Renoir’s philosophy underlay Election far more than it does About Schmidt.
But the film has any number of compensations. It has terrific attention to detail, and you’ll seldom get such an authentic whiff of mid-price hotels and restaurants, of officers and trailer parks and living rooms. And reservations aside, it is often very funny. It sets its own pace, never breaking away from Schmidt himself, maintaining a kind of shocked geniality that may well sum up the mid-West.
Letter from Africa
And the film has a highly beguiling voice over, as Schmidt sets out his life in letters to a 6 year old African boy that he’s sponsoring for $22 a month. The device provides yet more incongruity, as Schmidt recounts mundane local details to a little boy who has no possible sense of the culture (always ending with a banal closing such as “Hope things are fine with you.”) We only ever see the boy in a photograph, yet in some weird way he’s the second most indelible presence in the movie (Kathy Bates’ much-praised turn as the mother of the groom was too familiar for my taste, and the rest of the cast isn’t really given enough to work with.) Schmidt’s connection with the kid actually is something that does set him aside – it’s his main claim to transcend his surroundings. Which is why when the movie makes this explicit in its final scene, it’s an intensely moving moment for Schmidt, and I think for most of the audience as well.
Nicholson’s career is so rich that he doesn’t need to add to it, and yet About Schmidt may win him a fourth Oscar. He may deserve it, and yet however strongly one assesses his acting, the fact remains that the film might have worked better with a less known actor in the role. But then it might also have been dumped straight to cable. Reading this article over, I feel I’ve understated the enjoyment I got out of the film. But after Election, we were entitled to expect something amazing. As much as Nicholson plays against type, in the end he does the film a big disfavor. He makes it just too easy to watch.