Wednesday, 11 July 2012

About Schmidt (2002)

Dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates 

In Alexander Paynes’s Sidweways we met Miles, a man who did not have much in life to give him satisfaction other than his knowledge and love of wines. In Payne's next film About Schmidt we meet Warren, a man whose certainties in life are progressively knocked away.  

Warren retires from his position as Vice-President of an insurance company. At his farewell party his oldest friend Ray (Len Cariou) opines that nothing matters in the world other than having made a difference. Yet Warren soon comes to realise that he has made no difference to the world at all. He is replaced at work by someone much younger, and the company junks all his old records. He had always thought that his wife, Helen (June Squibb), was beneath him, but she then dies suddenly and he starts to appreciate everything she had done for him. Worse, he discovers old love letters to Helen, from Ray. It turns out his wife was not as devoted to him as he always assumed. This leaves him with his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis). She is the apple of his eye, but she sees it differently, seeing him as someone distant and overbearing to her mother. She lives away from home in Denver, where she is preparing to marry Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Warren doesn’t approve. He considers Randall a “nincompoop”. But Jeannie refuses to listen to his advice, and insists that the wedding will go head as planned. Even the things that meant something to him have changed. He goes on a road-trip across Nebraska to revisit his youth. His childhood home has now been demolished to make way for a tyre salesroom, and the new intake of his old fraternity at university are less than enthralled by his recollections. 

And so he bumbles his way from Omaha to Denver, upsetting people en route. He attacks Ray. He meets a friendly but gosh-darned annoying couple at a campsite (“Permission to come aboard?” indeed!); he scotches that evening by making a pass at the wife when she shows him some sympathy. He instructs Jeannie not to marry Randall; she flatly refuses. About the only people he does not upset are Randall’s parents. Frankly, they are unshockable. He is traumatised by the openness of the Hertzels (particularly at their discussion of his daughter’s sex life). But when he comes to make his speech at the wedding he cannot say what is really on his mind. He chokes out some platitudes that could be taken for positive comments. 

What has his life amounted to? He is a chequebook and nothing more. He has spent a lifetime scrimping and saving (insisting his wife paid for half of their Winnebago, buying the second cheapest casket for her funeral), and now he has no real way to spend it, other than on a wedding that he would rather didn’t happen. On a couple of occasions he focuses on a cattle truck. I think this is meant to be some sort of leitmotif – he has accomplished all he is going to, and now all he is good for is the chop. But he does make a difference to one person. On an impulse he commits to sponsoring a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan, Ndugu, for $22 a month. He uses his letters to Ndugu as a form of therapy (and narrative voice). Thankfully Ndugu cannot read yet, sparing him from the realisation of quite what a “sad, sad man” his foster father is. So without even engaging with his sponsor he sends Warren a painting of the two of them hand in hand. It is a simple gesture of togetherness. Warren realises that he has made a difference to someone he has never met. Or maybe he is just deluding himself again. He deludes himself that Jeannie is something big in computing, but when he speaks to her over the phone she is talking about bubble wrap in receiving and despatch. He deludes himself that his work was complicated, but his replacement seems to have had no trouble fitting in. He tells himself that his wife would not have allowed him to throw away his salary to found his own company – maybe that is delusion too. Maybe everyone of a certain age looks back upon their life and deludes themselves about what has gone before. Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates, in her third appearance this year since Fried Green Tomatoes… and Revolutionary Road) certainly thinks that the sun shines out of Randall’s bottom. His childhood bedroom is practically a shrine to his greatness, festooned with football rosettes (all given for participation) and framed college certificates (given for perfect attendance over the two weeks of the course).

Warren Schmidt is played by Jack Nicholson, his fourth appearance so far this year. And here he is a crushed failure of a man. He does not have the glib cockiness of Gittes in Chinatown, the mad psychopathy of The Shining or the devilish charisma of The Departed; he underplays it. There are times when Nicholson borders on the manic, and there are scenes where he mugs for comic effect, and he can never disguise that trademark Nicholson growl, but all-in-all, well played Jack. If you cannot stand Jack Nicholson, this is not the film for you though. The story is told through his eyes and his words; he is in every single scene. 

The set design for Fifty Shades of Grey was, perhaps, too literal...

What have I leant about Nebraska?
Nebraska’s chief city is Omaha, and it is a bigger city than I had realised. It has skyscrapers and everything – not something I had expected. Entertainment outside Omaha seems to be lacking a little however. That being said, the pioneer museum at Kearney seems very high-tech; again, not something I would have expected from Nebraska. But it is testament to the pioneer routes taken through Nebraska and along its rivers to the west.

I’m not sure if a conclusion should be drawn between Warren the Nebraskan being uptight, buttoned down and conservative, and the people in Denver being freer, more liberal and more open.

Can we go there?
The film was shot on location. In the film Schmidt pin-balls from Omaha, around Nebraska, slide into Kansas, then back and on to Denver, Colorado. In actual fact, the entire thing was shot in the Omaha area. 

The Woodmen Life Assurance Company tower block really exists (at 1700 Farnam Street SW). Warren and Helen lived at 5402 Izard Street in the suburb of Dundee. His retirement dinner takes place at Johnny’s Café at S 27th Street. Schmidt visits the Dairy Queen on S 136th Street in Milliard. Jeannie and Randall fly out of Eppley Airfield back to Denver. Schmidt claims to have grown up in Holdrege, south-central Nebraska; the Tires Plus salesroom actually exists in Council Bluffs, Iowa, directly across the Missouri River from Omaha. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln stood in for the University of Kansas in Lawrence. 

One place I am sure you would be welcome is the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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