First Viewing: About Schmidt

This isn't Jack Nicholson. This is Warren Schmidt.

This isn't Jack Nicholson. This is Warren Schmidt.

Whenever  I see a movie with Jack Nicholson in it, I tend to forget what his character’s name is. That’s because he’s so well-known and revered that I can’t help but think to myself: “Hey! It’s Jack Nicholson!” But that’s not what its like for About Schmidt. He is Warren Schmidt first, and Jack Nicholson second.

It’s a wildly different role than what Nicholson has played in the past. For one thing, Schmidt is old.  Long sequences of the film are filled with Schmidt’s silence and quiet glances. The first scene of the film shows Schmidt watching the clock on his last day of work. The office is clean and bare, his personal effects lying in a box at his feet. The clock hits five, he nods his head, and then he picks up his things and leaves. He exhibits no feelings towards his retirement. In fact, he shows no emotions towards much of anything. He sits quietly and smiles politely as his friends toast him during his retirement banquet. He sits at home and falls asleep in front of the television. His conversations with his wife are banal and forced. He’s not much of anything.

Schmidt is a hard character to get a handle of. Most films make it easy for us by making it clear whether our protagonist is someone we’re going to sympathize with or if we’re going to be disgusted by them. But About Schmidt constantly forces the audience to second-guess their opinions of the titular character. It seems simple enough: Schmidt has just retired and doesn’t know what he is going to do with his life anymore. So we’re sympathetic. But then he confides that he hates almost everything about his wife and when she dies he buys her the second-cheapest casket. Our opinion of him at this point becomes shady. Is he a victim? A villain? Those are the types of questions you find yourself asking as you watch the film.

Eventually, Schmidt sponsors an African child named Ndugu after watching a late-night infomercial. For only $22/month he’s helping a child in need, but like almost everything Schmidt does, his charity becomes more about him than Ndugu. He write Ndugu, a six-year old boy, long personal letters about his life where he confides details about himself that he doesn’t share with anyone else. Schmidt pretends to his family and friends that nothing is wrong with his life when inside he is brewing with a sadness and anger that he has wasted it.

The climax of the film takes place at his daughter’s wedding. Schmidt doesn’t think that her fiancee, a water bed salesman with a mullet and handlebar moustache, is worthy enough to marry her. He tries several times to convince her that she deserves better, but she sees right through his protests. Schmidt thinks that he deserves better, not his daughter. He’s concerned more about being the father-in-law of a waterbed salesman than he is to see his daughter happily married.

Schmidt with his daughter and her fiancee

At the end of the film, Schmidt cries for the only time in the film. I don’t know if it means that he’s learned anything or if he’s going to change. But it does seem like a breakthrough. For the first time, he’s mourning a loss.

About Schmidt is directed by Alexander Payne, a fantastic director who also made the films Election and Sideways, two other movies that explore human nature with a mix of pathos and comedy. Check them out if you get the chance, or better yet, have a “Night of Payne” with all three.

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