Most of us will never have an impact on the world. Chances are that few of us will win Nobel Prizes or write the Great American Novel. You and I will doubtfully discover a cure for a disease or be remembered by anyone other than the people in our immediate social circle.
There is such an honest and delicate vulnerability to which Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) explains to us how his life did not turn out the way he originally expected. Though we never see Warren as a young man in Alexander Payne’s ABOUT SCHMIDT, that youthful spirit is there. It’s been corrupted and jaded over the years but it’s there. It’s the numbing feeling of disappointment. The promise of youth unfulfilled. We get glimpses into Warren’s head, including a fantasy of his face on the cover of Time Magazine. For all but a select few, our delusions of grandeur and youthful idealism are met with a hard knock back down to reality sooner or later. Did I mention yet that this movie is funny?
Payne walks a tightrope with ABOUT SCHIMDT that is very difficult to walk. It’s an almost impossible film to classify. It’s neither comedy or drama, yet it’s both. There are two of those masks for a reason. Life has a funny way of being funny and tragic at the same time. Sad things are funny. Funny things are sad. In telling the story of a thoroughly ordinary, emotionally repressed about-to-be-retired insurance salesman, Payne makes sure to keep the tone simultaneously funny and sad. It is pitch perfect. Credit must be given to Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, for having not only the writing skill but the insight into life necessary to execute a film of this resonance.
The film opens with Warren Schmidt literally counting the seconds to his retirement. His boxes are all packed and there’s clearly no work left to be done. It’s just a matter of time before his service runs out and he no longer becomes relevant in any way to a company that he spent his life working for. Later, Warren will visit his replacement to offer some help or advice only to discover that none is required. The place didn’t skip a beat when he left. So much for your life’s work. At home things aren’t much better for Warren. His wife has been, according to him, replaced by some old woman. She is no longer the vibrant woman he once knew. Seeing her make efforts to infuse a spark into their lives by purchasing a Winnebago, I wondered if it wasn’t Warren who was the one who changed. Or at the very least became introspective far too late in life.
The Winnebago may not sound like the ultimate symbol of youthful exuberance but this story is set in Omaha, Nebraska. Most films featuring characters from the Midwest portray them with a condescending tone. They marvel at how white trash they are. Payne is actually from Omaha, and seem to nail the sentiment and lifestyle of the Midwest while never judging it. ELECTION is another example of Payne using his midwest roots as a setting for characters of traditional values albeit with an edge. There is always something to hide in Payne’s world. Matthew Broderick’s schoolteacher friend in ELECTION secretly carried on an affair with one of his students. Broderick himself cheated on his wife when he wasn’t escaping to his basement to watch porn. In SIDEWAYS, an intellectual wine enthusiast is actually a depressive alcoholic, while his seemingly stable friend is a manwhore with no standards. In ABOUT SCHMIDT, all of Warren’s insecurities and true feelings are kept hidden. His feelings about his wife, his life, his job, his lot in life are all kept secret. That is until he finds the perfect confidant, an African orphan named Ndugu.
Strangers are sometimes the easiest people in the world to be honest with. There’s nothing to lose with a stranger. Your secret is safe with them. When Warren sees a Sally Struthers ad asking to sponsor an African child, Warren begins to write letters to little Ndugu venting his feelings and frustrations despite the fact that Ndugu has much bigger problems on his plate. Though a child of that age and culture could never possibly begin to comprehend the feelings of someone like Warren, he allows Warren to feel needed.
The film centers around the wedding of Warren’s daughter Jeanie. Jeanie is marrying a complete moron. A waterbed salesman who often gets wrapped up in pyramid schemes. Warren sees an opportunity to protect her daughter and do the right thing. Warren never acts out of selfishness, yet he has become so numb throughout the years to feelings and sensitivity that he often makes mistakes in his quest to do the right thing. When it comes time for Warren to give his wedding toast, the film could have gone in so many different ways. What happens is honest, real and a genuine act of kindness. These aren’t big flashy gestures, but rather the types of generosity and love that happen in real life. Warren isn’t a profound man capable of a profound speech. However, his toast serves as an act of love in the way that somebody like Warren knows how to give.
The final moments of the film are chilling and dark. Warren’s voice over makes us all think about life and death and how we may feel at that age. Few films have the courage to be so frank and sobering. Warren is not a cuddly or cute character, and his revelations and reflections on his life are gut wrenching in their sadness. However, yet again Payne and Taylor find just the right note to end on. That moment is the climax of a tremendous performance by Nicholson, who abandons his “Jack-isms” for this role. It’s a pretty great feat when an actor so iconic, who has spent years crafting a persona that is so well known, is able to shed all his mannerisms and create a subtle, original human being out of thin air. Warren isn’t like previous Jack roles in which he is suave, sophisticated, sly, clever and banging younger women. Warren is sad, tubby and mild mannered. He’s polite and affable and has just the right front to not let anyone know how sad and confused he is on the inside. I am hard pressed to find a moment in his career that is more deeply moving than the film’s final shot.
ABOUT SCHMIDT wasn’t much of a hit at the box office. It got lost in the Oscar shuffle. Nicholson lost out to Adrian Brody and the film wasn’t even nominated (in order to make way for far lesser films such as CHICAGO, GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE HOURS). However it remains a deeply observant and moving film that offers insight into the soul of the everyday man.