Humor in Sadness


About Schmidt (2002) Review 5
Director:Alexander Payne,
Starring:Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates
Length:125 minutes


Let’s face it, for most of us, the real world is depressing. And sometimes we just want to escape into a movie theater somewhere and forget. The problem is that the forgetting is temporary, and we can be so easily reminded.About Schmidt (2002) Review 7

Jack Nicholson has given us much to relate to in About Schmidt and, unfortunately, it hits too close to home.

The film opens with great ominous shots of the huge, looming Woodman of the World Insurance Company building in Omaha, Nebraska. Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is a sixty-seven year old troubled retiree–a former Woodman actuarial man who can compute with a reasonable degree of accuracy the life expectancy of a man based on a few particular details. After the death of his wife of 42 years, he calculates that he has approximately 9 years to live. Without his wife, he finds himself alone and completely without purpose. Of course, the loneliness was present before her death, but now, it’s all he has left.

About Schmidt slowly develops through the use of a sometimes profound and often tragic voice over narration cleverly disguised within several letters written by Schmidt to a Namibian child Schmidt sponsors after seeing a Save the Children commercial. This technique is a little too cute for its own good, however, and, at times, felt just convenient.

Part of this film is an unpleasant road picture–Schmidt’s travels on his giant Adventurer Winnebago (a dog might have helped, think, Travels With Charley). Schmidt takes off on a pilgrimage to visit his only daughter (a very fine mousy Hope Davis) who is about to marry Randall Hertzel (a shaggy Dermot Mulroney). Hertzel a simple but well-meaning man Schmidt considers beneath his “only.” In one oddly trite scene, Schmidt sits atop his traveling home and literally wishes upon a falling star for a purpose in life. Without any real magic, Schmidt concludes that his purpose is to save his daughter from this terrible man. And, you know, when we meet the guy (played dumb and even disgusting by Mulroney), Schmidt might have a point.About Schmidt (2002) Review 9

What is really troublesome is that Schmidt’s purpose, like most everything in his life, involves selfish motives and may just be wrong. I fear that this is the message of About Schmidt that takes an awful long time to prove its point. Along the way, we are reminded why we went to the movies in the first place, and why films like this one are so seldom found there.

It is a great testimony to Nicholson’s superior acting prowess that Schmidt’s depression transfers to the viewer. We feel his pain, over and over again. And it is a pot boiling over. In one climatic scene, I felt completely damaged. I, like Schmidt, wanted to seek comfort and privacy in a vacant men’s room.About Schmidt (2002) Review 11

The cast is a complete pleasure and all put forth great effort for laughs. Although the show clearly belongs to Nicholson, who appears in every scene, Kathy Bates quite literally bears all (no clothing) as Hertzel’s blissfully bohemian mother. It was nice to see a haggard but well-seasoned Howard Hesseman on the big screen again playing Hertzel’s father. The extreme vulgarity of Hertzel’s functionally dysfunctional family is wonderfully displayed at a family dinner. Very little meat is left on the bone. Scenes like this one are little gems especially around this festive season when participation in such food orgies is commonplace. But seeing this objectively, well, the fly on the wall has reason to vomit.

About Schmidt is real tragic American angst. Audiences may be reminded of their own personal tragedies (we have so many, you know, we lose count) and those seeking escape may feel cheated.

I fear that the trailers for Schmidt will mislead ticket buyers. The trailer makes this film sound bittersweet and look funny. While moments of great hilarity permeate throughout, this is not a comedy but something darkly familiar. About Schmidt reminds us that humor exists in tragedy, and laughter is just a shade way from sadness.