About Schmidt Review

There are a number of things which make About Schmidt a remarkable film. Firstly, it's a study of grief and loss which never resorts to sentimentality or pat, 'Hollywood' answers. Secondly, it's a road movie which avoids almost every cliche of that genre. Thirdly, and most extraordinarily, it demonstrates that Jack Nicholson, latterly a lazy ham who delivers the same schtick in film after film, is still capable of giving a great performance.

The film is a combination of road movie and character study, concentrating on Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), once VP in charge of sales of Woodmen Insurance but now put out to pasture. At the mercy of his wife Helen (June Squibb), he is resigned to a life of daytime television, trips away in their luxurious mobile home and constant nagging, finding some comfort in a sudden desire to become a foster parent to an African child. But, quite suddenly, Helen dies while vacuuming the kitchen floor and Warren finds himself alone for the first time in forty five years. Realising that he can't cope on his own, he attempts to persuade his daughter Jeannie (Davis) to postpone her imminent marriage to water-bed salesman Randall Hertzel (Mulroney) and stay to look after him, but when she refuses he is plunged into depression. However, his feelings change considerably when he discovers that his wife, seemingly a faithful partner throughout their time together, had engaged in a long-term affair with his best friend. The knowledge that this, along with many other things in life, has passed him by sends Schmidt into an assertive frame of mind and he decides to drive out in the motor home to Jeannie's wedding, with the intention of stopping her marriage to Randall before it's too late.

The first thing that strikes you when watching About Schmidt is how sad it is. I don't mean the Channel 5 afternoon movie kind of "sad" where tears are wrung out of you by one of a selection of 'tragic' true life stories accompanied by heartrending strings. I mean, genuine sadness resulting from a truthful portrayal of a wasted life. There's no manipulation here, no straining for effect, just a quietly devastating study of a man who suddenly realises that his life has, fundamentally, done nothing to impact significantly on anyone else's. This builds throughout the film, resulting in a final payoff in the last scene which is as moving as it is, cautiously, uplifting. As you watch, you keep dreading the 'big scenes' which seem inevitable - the public crack-up at the wedding, an "I love you Dad", "I love you Jeannie" exchange, the tearful acknowledgement of heartbreak. But none of these scenes come. Instead, we get a low key and entirely convincing account of a man who comes to seem totally real. There are certainly key moments of self-realisation and emotional expression in the film but they are small and deliberately muted. The director, Alexander Payne, knows how to keep things in proportion - as he demonstrated in the superb Election - and this style is entirely appropriate for Warren Schmidt, a little man who never quite made it and can't express his own desperation except in a series of hilarious rants. These are shown in the form of letters composed to Ndugu, his African foster son, and they are beautifully controlled so as not to become simple stand-up comedy routines. As with everything else in this lovely film, the comedy comes out of the characters.

In this, Payne is assisted by his star. Jack Nicholson has always been a fine comic actor and has often managed to tug the heartstrings as well. But it's only been very occasionally that a director has managed to force him to go inside a character and make his mannerisms disappear. Sean Penn managed it with his two Nicholson films, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge; indeed, Nicholson's finest moments, for me, were both in relatively low key performances, during the last half hour of Five Easy Pieces and in the much underrated King of Marvin Gardens. This actor has done so much simplistic, lazy overacting in his time that it's only in films like About Schmidt that he shows how good he really can be. Nicholson delves deep inside Schmidt, dispensing with his usual sly charm, all grinning and winks to the audience. His Schmidt is weighed down by years of little disappointments and personal failures and in his slouch we see a man who has finally admitted defeat at the hands of life. His rants, amusing as they are, are all done in voiceover, representing the turbulent inner feelings of a man who is used to holding them in check. There's no playing to the camera or star cushioning - when Nicholson is meant to look dreadful, following two weeks of self-neglect, he looks really terrible. He affects you with little moments of emotional desolation - a beautiful scene where he spreads his wife's moisturising cream over his face says everything. It's also a generous performance. When he makes naive but heartfelt comments about the "raw deal" given to the Native American Indians, you really believe that this is a decent man who has never really thought about such things at all. Given a dream supporting cast, Nicholson is happy to let them get the laughs while he reacts in the background. Apparently, he was pushed into this level of self-restraint through constant persuasion and cajoling from Payne, a man who must have the patience to pick up mercury with his bare hands - but the work paid off. Along with The Pledge, this is Jack's best work for a long time and he really should have won the Oscar for which he was nominated.

The rest of the cast are allowed to play rather more broadly than Nicholson but this is entirely appropriate to their parts. The reliable Len Cariou - a star on Broadway in shows ranging from La Cage Aux Folles to Sweeney Todd but just a minor supporting player in movies - gets away with a risky drunk speech at Schmidt's retirement party without resorting to cliche or sentiment and Howard Hessemann - another reliable comedy performer - has some nice moments as Randall's mildly demented father. Payne also has a talent for bringing out the best in actors who have never made much of an impression before. Dermot Mulroney, given the best role of his career, is lovely as Randall, eschewing easy comedy for a more truthful characterisation which is very funny but also oddly touching. Hope Davis, so depressingly predictable in films such as Hearts In Atlantis, is well cast as the annoying Jeannie, the kind of daughter whose every word grates on you like fingernails on a blackboard.

Prize of place, however, has to go to the simply awesome Kathy Bates as Randall's terrifying mother Roberta. One of the most consistently impressive actresses of her generation, Bates has been quietly plugging away since Misery with good performances in otherwise dire films - she's the only possible reason to even contemplate watching Diabolique - and this is one of her most impressive performances. Roberta is a comic monster, the exact opposite to Schmidt in her life-consuming personality. She initially appears to be some kind of Hippie love goddess but soon reveals herself to be a selfish monster who seems to have made her very best efforts to smother her son to death. It's a tribute to Bates that she doesn't alienate the audience and her bravery at being willing to do a nude scene (during a hilarious encounter with Schmidt in a jacuzzi) is admirable. Roberta gets most of the funniest lines in the film and Bates nails them with her consummate comic talent. Mention should also be made of her particular way with foul language, which enlivened Primary Colors considerably and is especially amusing here.

In most road movies, the characters go on the road to discover something and they either find it or find out more about themselves. In About Schmidt, Warren Schmidt goes on the road as an act of childish spite, in the hope of ruining his daughter's wedding, and discovers absolutely nothing except that he was right to think his life was worthless. Although there is an ethereal moment of redemption at the end of the film, there is no huge confrontation or big dramatic climax. Alexander Payne is a master of non-confrontation. Election gained much of its potency from Matthew Broderick's inability to either control his rage at Reese Witherspoon's Miss Perfection or express it in a constructive manner, and he does much the same thing here but in a more subtle manner. Schmidt tries to confront life, his daughter or himself and finds himself totally unable to do so. He's the still centre around which life revolves, which is both his comedy and, ultimately, his tragedy. Payne frequently lets his images speak for themselves, such as in the finely controlled opening series of shots which places Schmidt firmly within his life and his surroundings. The dialogue by Payne and Jim Taylor is surprising and funny, with Schmidt's voiceover letters to Ndugu standing out. The film looks great throughout, shot in appropriately dismal colours and in harsh natural lighting, and Rolfe Kent's music score is poignant without being syrupy.

Most of all, About Schmidt is that rare beast; a film which is hysterically funny while being deeply moving. We laugh at Warren Schmidt's naivity and his procrastination but we never find him ridiculous. Your heart breaks for him at the end because his honesty about his failure is, perhaps, uncomfortably close to home - especially for those of us who aren't getting any younger. It's also a marvellous showcase for Jack Nicholson, an actor who has rarely been better than he is in this film.

The Disc

The Region 2 DVD release of About Schmidt is identical to the Region 1 in terms of content and EIV can be congratulated on what is a very pleasing disc.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's a very good transfer indeed; clean, crisp and sharp. There is plenty of detail - rather more than the R1 disc to my eyes - and the muted colours come across very well. You will notice a small amount of grain throughout, intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but there is no artifacting or print damage.

Three English soundtracks are present on the disc. The first is in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds very nice indeed. The film is not a spectacular surround experience but the dialogue is presented very clearly and the fragile music score sounds gorgeous. The dialogue is sometimes directional and ambient effects keep the surrounds occupied on occasion. We also get a DTS 5.1 track which sounds much the same - thanks to Mark Rafferty for the use of his DTS system to check this. Finally, there is a Dolby 2.0 Surround track which is fine, given its natural limitations. However you listen to this disc, you are unlikely to be disappointed.

Surprisingly, we don't get a commentary track from Alexander Payne - who did good tracks on his previous films - but the extra features are interesting enough.

There are nine deleted scenes. These are presented with text introductions from Payne and are all well worth seeing. Although an introductory screen apologises for the low quality of these scenes, they are all in anamorphic 1.85:1 and look pretty good to me. The text commentaries are surprisingly full and honest, with Payne often expressing regret at their omission from the finished film. I particularly liked the prime rib dinner, which rounds out the relationships between the Schmidts and their friends, and the painful scene where Schmidt tries to reminisce with his daughter.

The "Woodmen Tower Sequences" are a series of five short films, presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1, made by the assistant editors on the picture, all of whom were offered the chance to produce their own openings to the film. Very interesting to watch, if only to demonstrate why Payne's beginning was the right one.

Finally, there is the theatrical trailer in anamorphic 1.85:1 and a screen advertising a child-sponsoring scheme.

There are 26 chapter stops, nicely animated menus and English subtitles on the film and the special features.

A very fine film indeed has been given a very good DVD release. Highly recommended, even if you might wish that it was a fully fledged special edition.

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