About Schmidt (2002)

D: Alexander Payne
S: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates

Though Jack Nicholson seems to be making a latter-day career out of playing elderly eccentrics on spiritual journeys (much as he once played younger eccentrics doing the same thing), About Schmidt is not a retread of As Good as it Gets. It is still very much a star vehicle. Much of its energy comes from Nicholson's performance. But where As Good as it Gets (which won the actor an Oscar) was ultimately smug and condescending, offering the traditional feel-good 'out' for its bigoted, self-involved protagonist, About Schmidt subjects its central character to a psychological probing which reveals and challenges his assumptions, but leaves him struggling with them as the final credits roll, denying conventional catharsis. He may have 'learned something', but we are forced (as he is) to ask of what value is his realisation and what difference will it (and he) really make?

In what has already proved to be another award-winning performance, Nicholson plays another character whose world seems very small, as much by choice as by force of social circumstance. This time he plays an actuary whose retirement seems to intensify his faint but potent dissatisfaction with so many of the things and people around him (as well as with himself). As his daughter (Hope Davis)'s wedding approaches, he takes a road trip which becomes one of those odysseys of discovery beloved of a particular genre of American motion picture with which Nicholson has had a long association (right back to Easy Rider).

This journey is self-consciously narrated through the medium of letters written to an African child which Schmidt has sponsored, a device which allows screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Election) to explore different layers of storytelling and perception. Working from Louis Begley's novel, they build a complex portrait of a life examined by an unreliable narrator, a central character whose realisations about himself are gradual and subject to constant challenge by developments in the plot. It is a rich and rewarding script which builds to an absorbing character portrait in spite of many familiar generic elements. It also gives Nicholson enough control to hold the centre, yet gives Payne enough room to manoeuvre around him as director and work from the outside in. The world of the film is ultimately as interesting as the character himself, again in spite of generic familiarity, and the final result is a satisfactorily thought-provoking work of contemporary American cinema.

There are some issues of tone inspired by Rolfe Kent's score which may lead to some confusion. In accepting his Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, Nicholson quipped "I thought we were making a comedy." About Schmidt is occasionally quite funny and it does centre on a character whose single mindedness often disrupts an otherwise harmonious world, as is usually the case in the genre. The film also moves its central character towards social integration and a greater understanding of his inner relationship with the world, another keynote of 'comedy' in the classic sense.

Yet the film has a relentlessly grim undertone and an unforgiving grasp on the hard edges of its character's prejudices and perceived failures which makes it less than comfortable viewing. In a key scene (which turns to comic farce), Schmidt is told by a woman he barely knows that she senses that deep inside he is a very sad man. Though trite, the observation is also very true. An almost oppressive sadness underlies much of the film, which delves ever more deeply into despair as Schmidt tries to affect change in an outside world which is increasingly beyond his grasp. However, in spite of this entirely appropriate dramatic trajectory, much of the action is overlaid by a jaunty and seemingly unsuitable score which seems designed to compel the audience towards laughter.

About Schmidt is ultimately not the multiplex muncher it has been marketed to be, though it is a worthwhile viewing experience. Audiences who care to pay attention will find a wealth of detail which mount up to a compellingly authentic piece of cinematic portraiture. Though Nicholson is definitely the star, the film is generally well acted. Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne) has fun with another character whose subtle details are also ultimately richer than they first appear. The fact that she also has a brief nude scene may or may not be of interest to you, but it is an interesting moment in the film, adding to the discomforting and confrontational currents which wash over both Schmidt and the viewer who joins him on his journey.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.