About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2003)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Short Films, Theatrical Trailers

He’s played the Joker, the Devil, a rebellious mental patient, a dipsomaniac astronaut and a homicidal writer. For the better part of the last three decades, mention Jack Nicholson and a slew of iconic images come to mind. Yet until last year’s "About Schmidt," one portrayal eluded him and us: a regular Joe. With his doughy facial features and receding hairline, Warren Schmidt couldn’t be further from the half-satyr, half-lunatic image that we have projected onto Mr. Nicholson for so many years. (Of course, sitting courtside at Lakers games and getting into tiffs with the referees certainly doesn’t help dispel the myths.) Yet, director Alexander Payne found his perfect Everyman for his adaptation of the Louis Begley novel about the souring of the American dream.

Warren Schmidt should be the happiest guy on the earth at the start of "About Schmidt." Retiring after a lifetime of service for the Woodmen of the World insurance company, he can now sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labors. With Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years at his side, Warren receives a testimonial steak dinner with friends and colleagues. His only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis) is days away from getting married. Yet all is not right in Warren’s world: he develops a nagging sense of displacement, of inertia. He carries doubts about everything: his marriage, Jeannie’s fiancé, dim-witted waterbed salesman Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), even his place in the universe. Save for his sponsorship of Ndugu Umbo through one of those third world children outreach programs, Warren has convinced himself that his life has no meaning. When Helen suddenly dies, Warren packs up their recently purchased Winnebago and heads off from his home port of Omaha, Nebraska to Denver and try to convince Jeannie that she is making a mistake in marrying Randall. He hopes that if he is successful with this mission, he will not have lived in vain.

Like their previous outings "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," Payne and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor find the American Midwest a ripe playground for satirical jabs at such institutions as motherhood, high school, even the electoral process. In "About Schmidt," they took on no less a sacred cow than post World
War II America. Schmidt goes from being a useful, productive member of society to someone on the outer fringes once he goes from employed to retired. For the viewer, that process takes fifteen seconds from the start of the film. Soon after, all his steadfast raison d’etres for his existence as a father, husband and provider get shaken up. Once Schmidt boards his RV, he arrives at the same conclusion as Odysseus and his imitators have found through the centuries: nothing clears out the existential cobwebs like a good road trip!

As with all good satires, there are two belief systems in opposition here: the conformity required of the American Dreamer, represented by Warren’s old life, and the eccentricity of the pioneer spirit, evidenced by the dim-witted Randall and his kooky family including his bohemian mother Roberta (Kathy Bates). (Pioneers are a recurring motif in the film, including a visit by Warren to Pioneer Village, a real tourist attraction in Nebraska.) Both systems have their pluses, both have their drawbacks, but unfortunately by straddling both, it’s difficult to get a clear read if Payne and Taylor see Warren as caught between two systems, unable to free himself, or if he can evolve into a third, more spiritually rewarding life philosophy.

With all this mumbo-jumbo, I haven’t forgotten that I’m reviewing a movie and a damn fine on at that. Yes, Nicholson’s casting is a bit of high concept, but he certainly makes the part his own, as surely as the Joker’s cackling or Jack Torrance arching his eyebrows into his hairline. Payne’s direction makes the most of Jack’s presence, whether reciting his letters to his faraway confessor (each letter starts with "Dear Ngudu," a running gag for the entire length of the film) or his interaction with the Hertzel family, especially Roberta. Bates matches Nicholson’s subtlety with her own fearlessness each moment they share the screen, including a hot-tub scene that just for sheer chutzpah had me admire her all the more. Payne seems to genuinely love the Midwest, even if it provides more than ample evidence for his satiric arguments. Perhaps like so many baby-boomers entering their fifties and sixties, Schmidt wants to find some sense of renewed purpose amidst that complex ecosystem known as the American middle-class.

The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer looks super, with a clean sharp picture. The palettes here are definitely muted, especially in the Omaha scenes, with lots of gray skies and toned down colors, but it’s intentional and the image respects that. Colors are solid and natural looking with good detail delineation, down to the creases on Schmidt’s face. The source print is immaculate and I detected no compression or digital artifacts.

The DVD comes in three audio flavors: <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1, <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 and Dolby Digital matrix surround. Each have their advantages: the Dolby Digital 5.1 over the matrix surround for it’s increased spatial presence and the DTS over the Dolby Digital for slightly greater activity in the surround channels. Having said that, I will now contradict myself by saying there is really no reason to choose one over the other. In all three cases, I heard the dialogue clear as a bell and got the appropriate sound effects when necessary. In fact, I found the sound mix quite pleasing, very subdued and understated. Any audio option will satisfy.

The DVD seems to benefit from Payne’s involvement, but from a distance. The only extras are a selection of deleted scenes, trailers or an interesting collection of short films.
The nine deleted scenes come with explanations from the director as to what they were about, where they would have fit into the film and why they were ultimately excised. Payne’s chryoned explanations read very easy and self-effacing. They are presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and 5.1 audio. One interesting clip had Nicholson riffing on his famous restaurant scene from "Five Easy Pieces," and Payne explains how it fit into his overall thematic plans but was cut due to "taking the viewer out of the moment." (I agree, but it still would have been nice to see it in the film.) Payne takes the time to go into detail about pacing and narrative flow. Although most of the clips do seem superfluous, at the same time, they stand alone as tangential story filler and actually add to the film – strictly after the fact.

According to Payne’s chryoned comments, the five short films basically comprise an exercise in perception. He instructed his editing team to take the opening shots of Omaha and the Woodmen Tower and have five different groups interpret and edit the opening sequence. What resulted is a "Rashomon" style effect, with each team taking the same footage and, through editing and music, coming up with five strikingly different moods and attitudes towards the same material. The material is presented in standard <$PS,widescreen> and stereo.
The trailers section contains previews for "About Schmidt" as well as New Line’s "I Am Sam" and an upcoming theatrical release called "Unconditional Love." (It’s a comedy with Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett, and it looks promising), all presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>.

Satire in American cinema is rare enough as it is and for a big studio to pop the bill for such edgy, thought provoking fare should be applauded. "About Schmidt" deserves our attention. Highly recommended.