About Schmidt (2002)
Dir. Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne (from the novel by Louis Begley)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney
About Schmidt feels like a forgotten movie. I rarely hear anyone mention it, and I know that it has been largely ignored by myself. I purchased this film on DVD sometime in 2003 from Blockbuster Video. At that time in my life, Blockbuster was a big source of DVDs for me. They would almost always have their used rental discs for sale at pretty good prices about a year after their release, due to the store’s policy of stocking heavily on new releases and then downsizing their stock once the movies got a little older. Myself and my best friend would go to the area stores and raid their used DVD bins, stocking up on 4 for $20 discs. Our logic was that since it was about $3 to rent a DVD for the night, if we could get a disc for $5 and watch it twice then we were getting a good deal. I’ve watched About Schmidt more than two times since purchasing it some 13 years ago, but not many. I remember enjoying the movie, but it never made a huge impression on me, however it has hung around in my DVD collection when I’ve lost or misplaced other, more cherished discs.
It isn’t so much that About Schmidt is a bad movie, it’s just that it’s a very bland one, and it hasn’t aged particularly well. The film begins with the retirement of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) from his job at a Midwestern insurance firm. Already put off by the loss of his familiar work routines, Warren is thrown into a full three-quarter-life crisis after the death of his wife Helen (June Squibb) and his subsequent discovery of her decades-long affair with his best friend. Warren’s solution to his crisis is to set out in the RV that he and Helen purchased to spend their retirement together, and drive cross country from Nebraska to Colorado to attend the upcoming nuptials of his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis). Along the way, Warren begins to learn more about himself, and about the people around him, as he starts to accept and adjust to his new life.
Like the rest of Alexander Payne’s output, I feel About Schmidt is a fine piece of entertainment. It’s largely a light comedy, and it succeeds at hitting the beats it’s supposed to. The performances are solid across the board, with Nicholson and Kathy Bates receiving deserved Oscar nominations for their roles. However, my favorite performance was Dermot Mulroney as Randall, Jeannie’s ponytailed fiancée, who sells waterbeds, invests in pyramid schemes, and very obviously does not meet Warren’s approval. Randall is the film’s most obvious comic relief, but Mulroney never plays him as a total clown. Randall takes pride in his work, but he works to live rather than living to work. In this way, he provides a foil for the workaholic Warren, who sees Randall as a rube, unfit to wed his daughter. It’s telling that Warren made his living selling life insurance, a product that can’t be cashed in while the purchaser is still alive, versus the waterbeds that Randall sells, which are meant to provide comfort and enjoyment in the here and now. Halfway through the film, Randall approaches Warren with an opportunity to invest in what is “definitely not a pyramid scheme,” in an attempt to bolster his economic prospects in a changing economy, but also in an attempt to ingratiate himself to his future father in law, and to try to make an entry into the world of the upper middle class. Warren’s rejection of Randall is indicative of his classist attitude, as he repeatedly claims that Randall is “not good enough” to marry Jeannie, despite the obvious evidence that he makes Jeannie happy.
While Warren’s classist nature is revealed through his interactions with Randall, the film’s voice over narration often reveals its tendency towards White paternalism. Early in his retirement, Warren sees a commercial for Childreach, which leads him to sponsor a six year old boy in Tanzania named Ndugu. Throughout the film, Warren writes letters to Ndugu, which are narrated in voice over. Warren introduces himself to Ndugu as his new “foster father,” and proceeds to use his letters to Ndugu as a way to vent his frustrations and project his unfulfilled dreams onto the child. The letters are presented comically in the film, and they are often genuinely funny, but the content reveals Warren’s basic inability to understand or relate to cultures other than his own. The fact that Warren finishes off his first letter by writing that he’s sure Ndugu wants to “hurry down and cash that check and get [him]self something to eat,” is funny, but it also underlines a paternalism inherent in the attitudes of otherwise well-meaning do-gooders. I feel that this sort of well-meaning sentiment applies to the film as a whole. It’s funny, the acting is good, and it is largely enjoyable, but the point of view that it represents as the norm likely wasn’t relatable to most average Americans on its release, let alone now, when American society has become more diversified and stratified than ever.
As I mentioned, About Schmidt simply feels outdated today. The film was released in December of 2002, into a much different America than the one that I live in today. The idea of a gold watch retirement from a career after 50 years of service with one company seemed antiquated to me in 2003, and feels even more so watching the film again today. While the prospects for a retiree in the early part of the 21st century may have seemed bright, the reality for most American workers just 15 years later is that there may be little chance for a true retirement of any sort. The type of middle class prosperity that Warren Schmidt is meant to represent in this film is largely unachievable for most American workers in the year 2016. And while the film is dubious, or even downright pessimistic, about the happiness that can be found through a life dedicated to the achievement of material and monetary wealth, the relative comfort that a man in Warren Schmidt’s position has been able to enjoy, even at the expense of a more meaningful marriage or relationship with his daughter, must be preferable to an existence spent working overtime for a degrading wage simply to provide the bare necessities for your family.
The feeling that this film’s subject matter is distinctively out of step with the modern world is a problem that I’ve come to have with the films of Alexander Payne, in general. I have seen all of the films that he’s directed with the exception of his debut, Citizen Ruth, and they have always struck me as decent movies that leave little impression on me as a viewer. I have trouble relating to the Midwestern-ness of About Schmidt and Nebraska, and I also have trouble relating to the privilege and overbearing White-ness of Sideways and The Descendants. While I’ve enjoyed all of these movies at different times, and still think that they’re largely decent films with strong performances and are generally of high production quality, I can’t help but feel that they aren’t reflective of the face of America. As a viewer, I’m getting bored of the dominance of movies about White male elites, and I am hoping to see more representation of women, people of color, gays, and other marginalized groups in the films that get made. I’m hoping to see more films being made by people in these marginalized groups. There have been plenty of just fine movies made about the experiences of aging White men, and those movies will always continue to be made, but I hope that it isn’t at the expense of potentially great movies about characters who look less like the folks in Omaha.