Unclear On The Concept
Frustration Satire Leads To More Frustration
By Cole Smithey
Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a 66 year-old retired and widowed insurance man from Omaha who drives his 35-foot Winnebago cross country to foil his daughter's upcoming wedding in this insultingly dim movie based on a novel by Louis Begley and directed by Alexander Payne. The humanity that Jack Nicholson brings to his heartfelt character is so deluged by the film’s pitiable tone and dubious dramatic arc that it would be more interesting to watch Nicholson read a phone book than see him degraded as he is here. The dreary, banal and insipid Midwest world that Payne ridicules must surely mistake the director’s slurs and insults as fawning admiration if we are to believe the critics who hail this patronizing film as a masterpiece.
In its opening scene, Warren Schmidt sits at his desk in an empty office waiting for the clock to strike 5PM signaling his final departure from a life spent as an actuary analyst for a life insurance company. The sorrowful scene is comparable to the opening of Adam Sandler’s "Punch Drunk Love" wherein Sandler sits idly behind a desk waiting – like Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting For Godot" – for nothing to happen. Both characters have lived as drones to suddenly awaken and challenge themselves on a playing field of life by way of pedestrian and arcane actions that resonate with a series of thuds.
With a bit of disgruntled narration from sad-sack Warren, we learn that he’s none too pleased with his frumpy wife Helen (June Squibb) of 42 years, who warns Warren not to dawdle when he makes a run to the post office. But Warren dallies long enough for Helen to drop dead on the kitchen floor from cerebral edema while vacuuming. Warren is emotionally crushed and soon turns into a bachelor slob that makes Oscar Madison look like a neat freak. It seems that Helen performed essential cooking and cleaning tasks that Warren knows nothing about.
Warren’s bitchy daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and her lowlife fiancé Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney) stay with Warren for Helen’s funeral and criticize him for not spending enough money on Helen’s coffin. The distasteful couple makes it clear that they are the center of the universe and that Warren should feel free to contribute to their needs rather than the other way around. In the meantime Warren has started sending $22.00 a month to an organization that helps starving children in Tanzania to ease his guilt-ridden conscience about not contributing anything to society. But because of the film’s faux-cynical tone, we are led to suspect that the television-promoted humanitarian organization is just a scam to bilk suckers like Warren.
Inside Warren’s rose-colored vision of his distinctly unlikable daughter and his ranting letters to the 6-year-old Tanzanian boy Ndugu whom he believes he is supporting, lies the sluggish synergy that propels the movie. Warren believes his insolent daughter deserves someone better than a mullet-haired waterbed salesman so he drives to Denver to ostensibly obstruct the wedding after making a melancholy visit to his hometown along the way.
Once in Denver, Warren stays with Randall’s insufferable mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), who stands as an offense to BBWs the world over. After wrecking his neck by sleeping on Randall’s childhood waterbed, Warren makes the mistake of relaxing in Roberta’s hot tub, which she assumes is an ideal opportunity to make a nude sexual advance on the somewhat contorted Warren. The scene is gross and unnerving at the same time because it reminds the audience curiously of a scene from "Misery," in which Kathy Bates’ character hobbles the hapless author living in her house. Bad things seem to happen to men left alone too long with Kathy Bates who, as an actress, has ceased to create characters, choosing instead to amble through roles like some entitled matron of femininity.
Warren Schmidt is presented as a hero of the elderly because he sets out to provoke and instigate change. But Schmidt succumbs to the same small-minded demands that enabled him to subjugate his personality for so many years to a disloyal corporation and to a woman with whom he shared no physical relationship.
"About Schmidt" is a hostility-provoking film for the same reason that American citizens have lost their civil rights. The picture endorses, nay lionizes, complacency, inaction and the privilege of the greedy to steal whatever they covet simply because they are treacherous enough to do it. How Jack Nicholson strayed from representing antiauthoritarian iconoclastic ideals in such great movies as "Five Easy Pieces" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" is closely related to the way America has lost sight of the precepts upon which this country was built.
Rated R, 125 mins. (D) (One Star)