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About Schmidt Review

By Shawn McKenzie 01/14/2003

Alexander Payne directed one of the many great films of 1999, Election.  That film was dark and funny, and it went on to sweep the Independent Spirit Awards (Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.)  I looked foreword to Payne’s next movie.  Well, it took so long for him to come out with a new movie that I forgot about him.  When About Schmidt had finally been made and was making the film festival rounds (including Cannes, where it was nominated for a Golden Palm), I thought it was just another Jack Nicholson movie.  It wasn’t too long before I found out that it was Payne’s long-awaited follow-up to Election, and I got excited again.  It was worth the wait.

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is a 66-year-old man who has just retired from his job in Omaha, Nebraska as an actuary for Woodmen of the World Insurance Company.  He has spent most of his life at this job, and he wasn’t really looking foreword to retirement, because it is a little boring.  All he has now is his wife, Helen (June Squibb), since he has just found out that all his years at the insurance company didn’t mean squat (signified by the fact that he sees all of his active files by the trash bin.)  One day, while flipping through some channels on TV, he sees one of those starving African children commercials.  He figures he might be able to find some purpose in his life, so he decides to financially support Ndugu Umbo, a young boy in Tanzania, with his $22 a month pledge. They also encourage letters of correspondence, so he writes Ndugu and tells the boy all about his personal life, giving Warren an outlet to rant.  After he goes out to send his letter and grab a Blizzard at Dairy Queen, he comes home to find Helen dead.  This changes the course of his life.  After the funeral, he finds a box of love letters in Helen’s closet written by his best friend and former coworker Ray (Len Cariou.)  After confronting Ray about the letters, which only makes him feel even lonelier, he decides to drive across the country in the RV that he and Helen had bought before her death.  He visits several places from his childhood and young adult years (all of which have gone through many changes.)  He then drives to Denver where his adult daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) lives and is getting ready to marry Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney.)  Randall is a waterbed salesman who sports a wicked mullet.  Since Jeannie is his little girl and the only family he has left, Warren tries to talk Jeannie out of marrying Randall, which just ticks her off.  He meets Randall's divorced parents, Roberta (Kathy Bates) and Larry (Howard Hesseman), and Randall’s depressed brother Duncan (Mark Venhuizen.)  They freak him out even more than Randall himself does.  All throughout these adventures, he still writes to Ndugu, and realizes that his life isn’t as useless as he thought.

I am a little biased with this movie, because it was partially filmed in Denver.  If you are a frequent visitor to Entertain Your Brain, you know that I live in the Denver area, and this movie looked very familiar.  There are scenes where they make fun of our traffic and numerous construction projects.  Since we all make fun of those things too, it was entertaining to see it on the big screen.  It felt like a big in-joke that only Denverites could understand.

Aside from the Denver angle, About Schmidt is a very funny movie, although it is technically a drama.  Everyone gives great performances here.   Everyone in the principal cast falls all over each other to steal the scene, and it is great to watch.  I have to single out Nicholson and Bates.  Nicholson proves again why he is one of the greatest actors of the last forty years.  His most memorable scene might be the one where he takes some expired Percodan for a back problem and is a little out of it at Jeannie’s wedding rehearsal.  Bates’ most memorable (and disturbing) scene involves a hot tub.  Just check it out and you will see what I mean.

If I had one gripe, it would be that the movie didn’t let Nicholson rant more.  He only rants while writing to Ndugu, but otherwise takes the high road in his actual life.  It would have been fun to see him go off on somebody.

Since About Schmidt is up for several Golden Globes (Best Drama, Best Screenplay, nominations for Nicholson, Bates, and Payne), I think it is safe to say that we will see it receive some Oscar nominations.  While I liked some other movies better, I think it deserves them.  Once again, I must warn you, the movie is a little long (2 hours and 5 minutes), but if you are entertained, what does that matter?


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