Saturday 15 December 2018

Movie Review: About Schmidt (2002)

A low key character study, About Schmidt combines pathos and humour to explore the vestiges of a colourless life.

In Omaha, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires from a middle management position at a large insurance company. Warren's career fizzled as he settled for mediocrity at work and at home, where the love has long seeped out of his marriage to the controlling Helen (June Squibb). He remains close with his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who has relocated to Denver, although Warren does not think much of her fiancé Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a waterbed salesman.

Warren struggles to adjust to retirement, and dreads the impending road trips planned by Helen in an outsized Winnebago. He sponsors an African child in need and starts to express his frustrations in long letters to the young boy. An unexpected tragedy strikes Helen, and Warren finds himself alone. A road trip to Denver follows, where he meets Randall's quirky family including his mother Roberta (Kathy Bates).

Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, About Schmidt is an adaptation of a novel by Louis Begley. Despite an over-reliance on narration (in the form of Warren reading out his own letters) and the absence of a traditional plot, the film settles down to experience the emotions of one nondescript man in featureless middle America. Payne may as well be sending a nostalgic note to his hometown of Omaha: immaterial and inconsequential, but ultimately meaningful and satisfying in unexpected ways.

Payne captures all that is charming about urban environments that have long since lost all their charm. The restaurants, offices, homes and banquet halls all carry the stench of 1960s decor and unimaginative stylings, places stuck in time serving people who don't know or care enough to notice. The glum aesthetic adds to Schmidt's downbeat mood, or maybe helped create it through years of sameness.

At the heart of the depressed urban environment is Warren Schmidt, a quiet man now facing a countdown to the end of his life, his insurance background heightening awareness of exactly how many years he has left. With not many (if any) achievements to look back on with pride, Warren is subdued, bored, listless and restless, all with the resigned air of pragmatism. In an absorbing performance Nicholson pulls back and bottles up his exaggerated tendencies, allowing Schmidt to observe, react and mostly just lament a life that amounted to very little.

Payne peppers his film with character-driven humour, with Randall and his family a rich source of chuckles. Waterbeds, pyramid schemes, a dim-witted brother and a libidinous mother all enter Warren's life, forcing him to ponder whether any texture is better than no texture at all.

About Schmidt is about the sands of time running out, but with a few surprises lurking in the deceptively featureless remaining grains.

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