Continuing to cement his reputation as a master of the black comedy, writer-director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election), offers up a morality play about living with intent.
Facts of the Case
When Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, Chinatown) becomes a widower shortly after retiring from a lifetime of service as an actuary at Woodmen of the World Insurance in Omaha, Nebraska, he heads off to Denver in his Winnebago Adventurer to attend his daughter Jeannie's (Hope Davis, Hearts In Atlantis) wedding.
Warren disapproves of Jeannie's waterbed salesman fiancé Randall (Dermot Mulroney, My Best Friend's Wedding) and is freaked out by Randall's let-it-all-hang-out parents (Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman). But he begins to realize as he watches his daughter become a part of their family that slavish devotion to an insurance company hasn't exactly made for a life well spent.
About Schmidt is a clinic in tone, a comedy so consistently melancholy it continually wrong-foots its audience…in a good way. Its break from traditional comedic rhythms, grounded by a stellar performance by Jack Nicholson, is refreshing. Its approach to tragicomedy is unique because the laughs never provide true relief from the tragedy. How could they when the central character is a 67-year-old man only now discovering his life's focus has been all wrong? The film is about this slowly dawning revelation, but by the end it's a bit late for Schmidt to do anything substantive with the lesson learned. A running gag in the film—and a device as clever as it is convenient for allowing the audience to peer into Schmidt's psyche—is his numerous letters to Ndugu, a six-year-old African boy Schmidt has "adopted" through the sort of charitable relief organizations we all see advertised daily on television. In one letter, Schmidt explains to Ndugu that he was an actuary before he retired, that his job involved creating statistical models of how long people would live based on race, income, and other factors. He concludes the letter by explaining matter-of-factly (in a deadpan voice-over by Nicholson) that, based on the facts he's 67, retired, and a widower, he should be dead within nine years. It's a funny moment, but also tragic, the film's rub: spending time with people, loving and being loved, is what gives a life meaning, but when Schmidt finally realizes this his time's almost up.
As iconic an actor as Jack Nicholson is, in the past decade or so it's gotten easy to overlook his incredible range. We all love it when he plays a scene big because he's wickedly good at it, hilarious and domineering. Who can blame him if a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Randle McMurphy finds its way into most of Nicholson's other roles? He rants and rages so well, asking him to stop would be like asking Babe Ruth not to hit home runs. About Schmidt offers a performance by Nicholson as starkly against type as Robin Williams' recent turn in One Hour Photo. Restraint is the key word when it comes to Warren Schmidt, and Jack Nicholson is amazing in this role. His genius is in letting the comedy happen around him. For most of the movie, Schmidt isn't even self-aware, so how could he be intentionally funny? Alexander Payne uses our expectations of Nicholson's persona brilliantly, as when he puts the actor in a supermarket, gray hair akimbo and trenchcoat tossed sloppily over his pajamas, as he hurls vast quantities of frozen food into a shopping cart. It would be classic Nicholson broad comedy if Schmidt wasn't grieving his wife; instead our hearts break for him even as we laugh. It would've been easy to present the character as nothing more than a shallow guy who's wasted his life, but Nicholson and Payne work together to make him human, fully and truly, and it's this richness of characterization that gives the comedy and tragedy their bite.
The comedy kicks into its highest gear when Schmidt arrives in Denver and becomes straight man to his daughter's mother-in-law-to-be, Roberta Hertzel. Played by Kathy Bates in the film's second great performance, Roberta has the sort of blasé self-assurance usually embodied by Nicholson. As Schmidt sits iron-jawed and often wide-eyed, trying to maintain his composure while neck deep in the antics of Roberta and her family, it's as if Nicholson has fallen prey to a female version of his own persona. The irony is delicious. Nicholson's and Bates' scenes together, while few, are so entertaining they're enough in themselves to recommend the film.
James Glennon's cinematography for About Schmidt is sharp and clean, favoring grays, icy blues, and washed-out greens. It's a look in line with the film's narrative tone, and there's a genuine beauty about it. The DVD transfer is everything we've come to expect from New Line, treating Glennon's excellent work with the respect it deserves. Presented in an anamorphic transfer at 1.85:1, blacks are solid, colors are fully saturated, and the source from which the transfer was struck shows nary a flaw. It's hard to imagine the film could look any better than it does here.
The disc comes packed with more soundtrack options than frankly necessary. Sporting both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS tracks, it's a case of overkill for a film that offers a whole bunch of talking but not much in the way of effects that will challenge either your audio equipment or the auditory cortex of your brain. Still, better that there be too much than not enough, I say, and those who prefer a DTS track on principle even when there's no discernible difference between it and the Dolby track are bound to be pleased.
Extras are limited. There are nine deleted scenes that play a total of 30 minutes (including Payne's text-based introduction to each scene). They're all in good shape as far as image quality, and tend to be more entertaining than most of the deleted scenes we see on DVDs. Payne's introductions are particularly interesting because they convey his attachment to Omaha, which explains how he made such great use of it as a setting for the film. He points out, for instance, when local Nebraskans appears in a scene, as well as providing background information on specific locations, and making connections between About Schmidt and his previous films.
The Woodmen Tower Sequences is nothing more than an inside joke, more entertaining for the film's crew than its audience. Payne had his second unit shoot footage of Woodmen Tower, a landmark building in downtown Omaha, for use in the film's title sequence. Humorously, he asked them to shoot it from various angles but to keep it in the same place in the frame as Orson Welles had done with Xanadu in the opening shots of Citizen Kane. They came back with far more footage than he could actually use, so he gave the editing team free reign to create short films out of the unused footage. There are five films that run a total of about 13 minutes. Watch them if you dare.
About Schmidt is a subtle and earnest piece of tragicomedy boasting fine performances from Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates. Anyone with a deep aversion to dark comedies might want to stay away. I strongly recommend it for all others.
Court's in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Deleted Scenes
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