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About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)


    Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt treads a fine line between glib and profound, between comic and sad, but in doing so shows the audience that it’s usually easier to laugh at someone than it is to take a hard look at them. Jack Nicholson stars in a bravura performance as Warren Schmidt, a recently retired insurance executive who leaves the mundane dreariness of his Omaha home, embarking on a road trip across the American Midwest. It’s difficult to tell at first exactly what the film’s attitude is toward its characters. The opening scenes, which detail Warren’s transition into his supposedly golden years, seem to empathize greatly with him even as he holds those around him in disdain. He’s told during a co-worker’s speech that he’s devoted his life “to something meaningful… to being productive,” but once his productivity ends, he loses his moorings. Suddenly, he can’t stand the presence of his wife of 42 years and, though Warren never explicitly tells anyone, he finds himself yearning for some sort of purpose. In a moment of weakness, he responds to Angela Lansbury’s plea (delivered via an infomercial) to “adopt” a starving African child and his letters to the boy demonstrate both his lack of perspective on his life and his inexpressible discontent. After his wife suddenly dies, he begins roaming about like a zombie, and begins his countdown to his inevitable death.


    When the opportunity to escape that drudgery and travel to his only daughter’s wedding presents itself, Warren seizes it, heading out with the intention to convince his daughter that she needs to reconsider her impending marriage to Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a mullet wearing man that Warren deems unworthy. This journey provides the film with its loose narrative, but mostly the plot is an excuse for co-scripters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor to observe character and setting. As they create a convincing portrait of Warren’s Midwestern malaise, they unfurl their astute brand of satire, which attacks the inadequacy of American mores. The script is perfectly attuned to the way that people use polite conversation to avoid really saying anything when saying something genuine becomes difficult. Scenes set in both the home and workplace contain the same sort of vapid verbal dodging which manages to fill uncomfortable silences with a whole lot of nothing. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the moment where Warren is greeted by Roberta, the mother of his future son-in-law. In one nervous stream she gets the messy subject of his wife’s death out of the way and offers a drink to her visitor as a way of breaking the ice. It’s not necessarily true that she’s insincere in either her greeting or her empathy, but because both need to be stated they take on an automated, if sugar-coated, tone. This type of speech crops up during just about every uncomfortable exchange in the film, and the cumulative effect of it is the realization that no one is saying what they really mean in an attempt to maintain some sense of decorum. Once those rules of behavior are established, it’s easy to see how Warren managed to live obliviously in a passionless marriage for over 42 years.


    Since genuine emotion is so obviously cheap here (despite the superficial abundance of it, some of it courtesy of the genuinely annoying score), it’s no wonder that About Schmidt shows it being treated as a commodity. Warren’s mourning process is a road that is populated with financial markers. This is shown in everything from the cost of the funeral arrangements, to Randall’s opportunism, to the purchased sympathy cards and gifts of food that he receives in an attempt to ease his guilt somehow. When Warren takes his daughter to the airport to see her off, the two embrace in a genuine show of affection. Randall snaps a photo of this (to finish off his roll of film) and immediately appraises the moment as a “good one”. Appropriate responses and passive aggressive politeness seem to be more valuable here than honest ones, and from that vantage point, Warren’s character arc, which takes him on a trajectory from oblivious to curmudgeonly to regretful and resigned, is tragic. About Schmidt isn’t the story about a man who learns to feel again so much as it’s a man who is retrained by his experiences to feel in more conventional terms. Because the film has so much to say about the ways we try to claim whatever small niche we can as our territory and are reluctant to relinquish it (consider Warren’s job, daughter, or dead wife), Warren’s loss of his specific perspective is doubly awful. As a man with a mission Warren is a miserable failure. “Takin’ Care of Buisness” plays near the end of the film, but it’s inescapable by that point that Warren has completely neglected his intended business in more ways than one. As a man who has devoted his life to statistics about people instead of people themselves, his final moments in the film are a heartbreaking retreat to the idealized and trite.


* * * 1/2


Jeremy Heilman