About Schmidt (2002)

You don't know Jack

Alexander Payne’s previous films, Election and Citizen Ruth, are biting satires that ruthlessly mocked their problematic characters. In contrast, his 2002 film and third feature About Schmidt takes a more sympathetic, nuanced look at its protagonist. While traces of Payne’s signature caustic perspective remain, there is a clear tonal shift toward sentiment and humanism not present in his earlier work, to the point it’s almost impossible to recognize it as Payne’s work based on his prior output.

I say it’s “almost” impossible to recognize it as early Payne, but there are moments: Two of the film’s biggest squirms are awkward come-ons that mirror Jim McAllister’s failed pursuit of Linda in Election and are squarely misanthropic about genuine human connection. Many of the people we encounter on the title character’s odyssey are sad and little. Payne delivers a bunch of those little bits of mockery of both the characters and their middle America world throughout: e.g, the way Schmidt orders a Frosty with defeated body language is a perfect 30-second vignette.

We meet Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) on the cusp of retirement after decades spent working in insurance. As Schmidt confronts tragedy and his own obsolescence, he embarks on a road trip in an RV to attend his daughter’s wedding. Payne slowly unravels the layers of sadness and disappointment lurking beneath Schmidt’s withdrawn exterior.

The movie is essentially a vehicle for Nicholson to chafe at the world changing around him. Nicholson was nominated for Best Actor, and this film is often cited as one of his best performances. For the first half of the film, I honestly didn’t see it: Nicholson is funny and engaging, but never pushing out of his wheelhouse. But by the time the credits rolled, I was back with consensus on this being something special for Nicholson. For one, the funniest material is in the film’s second hour, most especially a brilliant piece of slapstick pratfall when Schmidt is forced to sleep on a waterbed for the first time. It honestly might be the hardest I’ve laughed at Nicholson’s acting.

And yet what I’m sure the Academy voters were thinking of when they nominated Nicholson were the emotional moments towards the film’s conclusion: He turns a generic wedding toast into a beautiful wringer of a hundred different feelings; it’s perfectly delivered. And the film’s final scene is a well-earned tearjerker that perfectly caps the film’s themes and epistolary structure that Nicholson hits like a wrecking ball.

Even though it sticks the landing, it’s still ultimately a pretty generic indie heart-tugger. It’s well-observed, but slow: The middle act sags with its various road trip episodes. Too many moments are cliches. Two-plus hours is too long for the material. The entire affair is sleepy and navel-gazing.

I like indie dramedies despite all their tropes, though, and this is a good one. Payne walks a fine line of revealing Schmidt’s flaws while not sacrificing his affection for the character. The director is deliberate in his pace of letting glimmers of Schmidt’s multitudes slowly emerge. For all the zest lost in Payne’s new softness, About Schmidt provides a character portrait much deeper and more humane than anything in Citizen Ruth or Election. When your default attitude towards the world is disdain, sincerity can be a challenge, and so I even find About Schmidt a bit admirable and radical for the director even if it’s in the lower half of his filmography.

So About Schmidt isn’t as clever or focused as his first two features, but the film is still ultimately a success. It opened the door for the tug-of-war between sentiment and cynicism that would define many of Payne’s works through 2023.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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