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The West Wing
ABOUT SCHMIDT, 2002
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Howard Hesseman
Warren Schmidt is forced to deal with an ambiguous future as he enters retirement. Soon after, his wife passes away and he must come to terms with his daughter's marriage to a man he does not care for and the failure that his life has become.
When you first watch ABOUT SCHMIDT, you'll forget to realize how brilliant Jack Nicholson's performance is. Nicholson sometimes get in his own way as a performer because he's such a character in his own life and you tend to see only Nicholson on screen and not the character he's playing. This happens a lot of time with famous actors, but Nicholson the guy at the Laker game and Nicholson the actor who's playing a role is a hard thing to divide in your brain.
So for the first time viewing ABOUT SCHMIDT (at least for me), you see Jack playing a guy who just retired, living in Nebraska. But the 2nd time you watch it, you see a retired guy who is as middle-class as middle-class is in Americana, who is really regretting the many choices he's made in his life. And the performance given in this film is perhaps Nicholson's best because he's able to make us laugh and cry at the same time without being over the top.
Jack Nicholson is playing a very dramatic role as his character is a very sad guy who never really accomplished anything is his life, except for sitting in on a mid-level sales job for 30 plus years. And director Alexander Payne is directing a comedy about how a guy thinks he's a failure.
So while Jack is doing his most dramatic turn to date, Alexander is attempting to make the audience laugh as much as he possible can. And that's his brilliance in all of his films. He always makes films about serious subjects with serious people who couldn't tell a joke if their life depended on it, but for some reason they are making us laugh because they are so serious!
One of Payne's themes in all of his films are about characters who seem to have not gotten the best out of their lives. People stuck in a job that they never wanted to be in the first place and because of that their actions to situations that occur are sketchy and puzzling.
In many ways, Payne's audiences are laughing at themselves because most of us are in those situations. That's really the only way the economy and American structure can work. People need to be doing jobs that they really don't love or have any passion for, but do it for the tradeoff of a good paycheck and security. And Payne makes films about that tradeoff.
ABOUT SCHMIDT is the film about a man realizing that he never really made any significant dent in the world he lives in. Most of the time people can rationalize their existence for their entire lives. But Schmidt has his the trifecta of conflict and because of that he's thinking a lot about his life:
#1 - He wife dies. A woman he's been with for over 40 years and has basically taken care of him (feeds him, clothes him etc.)
#2 - He retires from a job he's worked at for over 30 years. His structure changes and now he has more time to ponder.
#3 - His only child, Jeannie, is about to get married. He sees that she's perhaps settling for this guy, just like he's settled in his own life.
The way Payne gets the audience to know what Schmidt is thinking is a voiceover to a third-world child he's sponsoring. We've seen all of those commercials where they ask us to give .50 cents a day to feed a starving kid. Schmidt is taken by the commercial while flipping through the channels and decides to do it. They ask him to write to his sponsor and that's where the audience gets insight on Schmidt's thoughts and feelings.
There's a lot of irony when using this voice over. Schmidt is basically telling an illiterate boy, who is struggling to survive, his problems. The western world's conflicts over the eastern world's conflicts. It's a way for Payne to say that, yes, Schmidt's conflicts in the grand scheme of things really isn't that big of a deal. Especially when comparing it to this kid he's writing to. But this is an important story nevertheless that many people can relate with. I know personally that it motivated me to make sure my life doesn't end up like Warren Schmidt when I'm 66 years old.
It does say a lot about Schmidt the character to his letters to the child. Is he that unaware that his personal struggles pale in comparison to the kid he's writing? It would be like Bill Gates' kid writing a letter to a kid in the projects and telling him his conflicts in life. Yes, Bill Gates' kid probably does have issues in his life, because it's a tad insensitive to be telling them to someone who's just trying to survive and find shelter and food in his daily life.
In the end, Schmidt does what you expect him to do. But it was an entertaining 2 hours.