The Trouble with Jack

About Schmidt

It was surprising that my wife and I spent a fair amount of time talking about About Schmidt, because neither of us was terribly fond of it. Yet somewhere in the script and the movie was something worthwhile and interesting, something deserving discussing despite the film’s flaws.

To put it glibly, About Schmidt has three problems: its star, its director, and its screenplay. To be more generous, all have a lot going for them, but they tend to give the audience too much, to extend a gag or a look or a shot beyond utility, destroying a moment or a mood. Alexander Payne directed and co-wrote the film, and Jack Nicholson stars, and they’re largely to blame.

Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a sad-sack insurance executive who retires as the movie opens. He’s 66 years old, he tells just about everybody, and he’s been married for 42 years. But instead of spending time with his wife or his soon-to-be-married daughter, the impassive Warren puts most of his energy into writing to his new “foster” son — a six-year-old Tanzanian boy he sponsors after seeing a television commercial. When Warren’s wife dies suddenly, the boy becomes an outlet for all his inappropriate ruminations about his present life, namely a road trip around the country in his Winnebago.

The screenplay is fundamentally about middle-aged grief, loneliness, and isolation, but in the hands of Payne and Nicholson, it’s treated more like a comedy. That’s not a surprise, considering the sparkle in Nicholson’s eyes and Payne’s wonderfully over-the-top Election, but it has an unfortunate effect on the film.

There’s the scene in which Warren kisses a woman he just met, and Nicholson looks at her face just before he does the deed, with a sly look on his mug. The scene calls for confusion and pain, not mischief. Really, though, the problem with Nicholson is not his performance but his baggage. No matter what he does, he can’t escape the fact that he’s Jack Nicholson, and he can’t be both Jack and Warren at the same time.

My wife and I debated at length who might have been better in the role. We agreed on Bob Hoskins, but for all his skills as an actor, Hoskins isn’t exactly the box-office draw of Nicholson. We tossed around a half-dozen other names, but the larger among them had exactly the same problem as Nicholson; they bring too much of their pasts to all their roles. (For the record, I think Harvey Keitel could have done wonders with Warren, but the missus felt he’s too malevolent. Since our conversation, I’ve grown fond of the idea of Albert Finney, and I’m still mulling Al Pacino.)

Payne, too, overplays things, such as the condition of Warren’s house after his wife dies, the cartoonishness of the peripheral characters (and they’re all peripheral to Warren), Warren’s rage at discovering his wife had an affair a quarter-century earlier, and — please God, no! — a fucking shooting star.

Payne does get a lot right. There’s a hilariously in-denial sympathy card (“She’s Just Away”), a wonderfully dysfunctional broken family (led by still-feuding ex-spouses played by Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman), and the discovery that Hummels really are handsomely crafted. And when he’s not overselling jokes, Payne’s direction is assured and stunning, particularly in the way he sets up shots. (The wedding reception stands out, as the microphone mocks Warren and Payne avoids easy reaction shots.)

Still, About Schmidt’s humor and mawkishness are meant to offset the movie’s downbeat tone and serious themes, which Warren raises explicitly in his letters to the his sponsored child: Who is this old person in my bed? What have I given to the world? Why didn’t I appreciate what I had when I had it? But the slapstick and naughty-Jack levity are inappropriate for this movie; they make it feel schizophrenic.

What ultimately salvages About Schmidt is the matter-of-fact way it resolves itself; there are no easy answers or revelations about aging or being lonely. Warren gives an awkward, stumbling, somewhat disingenuous speech at his daughter’s reception, but it feels like progress because he’s trying to express something to human beings. And he finally breaks through the numbness of his life, finding his pain. Anybody who’s ever lost somebody dear knows that long-in-coming teary breakdown, and knows that it’s the first sign of healing.

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