Warren Schmidt has led a safe, predictable life working in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebr. for many years, yet now faces retirement. At the same time he is forced to take a hard look at his wife, his life and his relationship with his estranged daughter. An often hilarious series of events follow as Schmidt embarks on an unpredictable RV journey to attend his daughter's wedding in Denver. Written by
About Schmidt is Forrest Gump through the lens of Sartre or Camus. Warren Schmidt has a handicap, but it's the same handicap most of the people standing on line at seven p.m. at your local Wendy's have. The real star (or anti-star) of About Schmidt is the mediocre architectural landscape of America. Every room or box Warren Schmidt enters in this movie is as devoid of caring and vitality as he is: the retirement banquet room, Warren's house, the tire store, the hired wedding reception room. Schmidt's director and production designer take care to place us in the same life-draining, cheap structures we inhabit and deal with everyday. No prettifying. This is the drab landscape of Fargo revisited, but without the irony. The steady doses of violence in Fargo allowed you an escape route. But there's nothing ironical about a wasted life and a 66 year old widower spinning his wheels in the same rut, now partnerless and foundering. The combination of Jack, this story and these settings is effective and compelling. The result would be, I think, inevitable. The tone and attitude is not consistently managed, even by Nicholsen, whose worn-out, mannered schtick pops up occasionally. Yet the final effect is impossible to fend off: mundane American hell with droll comedic diversion. We experience a downfall as poignant as the smell of bacon cooking in Denny's at eight a.m.
Like Forrest Gump, the film depends on extensive voice over narration, V.O'd by Nicholsen as letters to Schmidt's newly adopted six year old Tanzanian foster child. Through these ridiculous sharings of sextagenarian angst with an African boy, we register Schmidt's internal grievances - thoughts we would never know about otherwise without his commentary. The slow dragging score drains vitality from each transition, as if cinematic momentum would be antithetical to the point of the tale. Back and forth we rock from a single minor chord to a second one, getting nowhere. The mood, the landscape, the buildings, the people say it all: Schmidt's on the road, but he might as well be sitting home in his lay-z-boy. The cushy bucket seat of a 35 foot Winnebago makes a good substitute.
Casting Jack Nicholson may have been the only way this story could have come to the screen. I've racked my brain to think of one other actor who could have pulled Schmidt off. Tony Hopkins? Not with the same comedic finesse. Gene Hackman reprising his role in Coppola's The Conversation or doing his Tennenbaum hamming? Don't think so. Only Jack has the mix. He does some hilarious bits in this, but overall the mood is somber, glum, inert. Can this be how that other famous Warren from Nebransas - Mr. Buffet - lives?
I was confused, amused, depressed and wierdly disoriented by About Schmidt as I left the theater. I commented that it wasn't a film I'd go see again. Thinking about it a day later, I'd hold to that IF it meant returning to the theater and paying. BUT - were I to run across About Schmidt on cable, I doubt I could tear myself away from it any more than I could from a crack up at the Indy 500. And I think that chance encounter might happen more than once, maybe for years. After all, this is the America I know and mark time in myself. A recommended film going experience.
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