Alexander Payne is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, the man behind several top-notch drama films produced at the turn of the millennium, films that often take an unconventional look behind the mores of our accepted society. To follow up to the excellent “Election,” Payne takes us once more to Omaha, Nebraska to tell the story of a man examining his life on retirement, questioning what purpose he has served in this transient world and what difference he has made. Despite containing fewer satyrical aspects than its predecessor, “About Schmidt” nevertheless manages to be much more than just a comedy about old age and senility or, for that matter, a vehicle for its lead to show off the wackiness with which he so often performs. It is an examination and a reflection though with a keen eye for humour and cynicism and based on the novel of the same name written by Louis Begley.
After working at an insurance company all his life, Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) finds that life after retirement isn’t all it’s made out to be. Yes, he and his wife Helen (June Squibb) have been married 42 years and own one hell of a camper-van, but Warren is increasingly frustrated with his empty life. As a distraction of sorts, he sponsors an African child Ndugu Umbo and through letters tries to pour out all the ill feelings in himself. When his wife dies however, he sets out to stop his daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) marriage to Randall Hertzell (Dermot Mulroney with craziest hair and beard), a mattress salesman of whom Schmidt highly disapproves. His journey, in the aforementioned, oversized vehicle, becomes one of self-discovery as he revisits the important stations in his life, the house of his birth and his Alma Mater amongst others. These are of course the roles that Jack Nicholson loves to have fun with, and not for anything was this performance Oscar nominated. While he still gets the chance to play a deranged sleaze, the genius of his dual performance lie in his lengthy monologues with himself, providing not only great laughs but hit right on the man’s frustration and loneliness. Nicholson is spellbinding to watch both within comedy mode and without. He is the star of the show and while this does take away from the rest of the cast to a certain extent, the film wishes to show Schmidt’s journey and this is thus justified.
Proceedings get increasingly out of hand with the arrival of Randall’s relatives in the lead-up to the film’s climax. Led by Kathy Bates, they are a troupe of hippyish characters and the absolute opposite of everything the hardworking and conservative Schmidt stands for. Warren’s acceptance of their identity is never forced in a stereotypical direction by Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor however, rather sinking into obscurity just like Schmidt himself as he realises his whole life has had no meaning. The emotional distance between him and those around is painful to watch but neither does the script dwell on this, inserting a stab of comedy at the craziest of moments. The pictures, particularly the scenes in Omaha, have been desaturated, giving the film an atmosphere of gloom jarringly at odds with the comedy, just as intended. And while the colours do brighten on occasion, they are at one with Schmidt’s dejected feelings. Certain similarities with Payne’s other films will certainly be spotted by his fans. Overall, “About Schmidt” remains one of the most curious and at the same time accomplished films of the last decade. Not quite as captivating as “Sideways” perhaps – that film being the pinnacle of Alexander Payne’s talents – but certainly one to return to.
For “About Schmidt” Payne’s regular composer Rolfe Kent wrote a selection of themes that are instantly recognisable on film and separately on album. Led by a mainly string ensemble and notable appearances of bassoon, Kent’s score exhibits the quirky charms and diversity of the character’s emotions. The main ideas are presented in sequence in “The End Credits of About Schmidt” and consist of the fullest and greatest performance of the themes. However, the melodies have a remarkable ability to be used in countless different thematic settings, from tender harp solos to an off-beat, almost russian styled march in “The Fury of Schmidt.” The soundtrack to this film is a hidden gem (a very rare album to boot) and is very easily enjoyable. Kent’s superior thematic variations make this a score for repeat listens and can only be awarded the highest rating.
With “About Schmidt” Jack Nicholson has once again proved why he is one of the acting world’s top dogs. If his performance were to be the only reason to watch the film, it would doubtlessly be more than worth it. Combined with Payne’s excellent screenplay and direction, it becomes an outstanding film and constitutes the sort of solid drama the Hollywood is still capable of producing. Very much recommended.
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