Life’s A Bitch
Main Cast: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney
Director: Alexander Payne
Based on the novel by Louis Begley, About Schmidt has Jack Nicholson playing an everyman. This particular everyman is Warren R. Schmidt, and he is about to retire. Right. Now. The film opens with Warren watching as the clock ticks off those final seconds of that final day in his career as an actuary for the Woodmen Insurance Company. As the clock hits 5, Warren rises, takes a last look around his office, and makes his quiet exit. That evening’s retirement party is filled with forced joviality and empty platitudes about the marvelous life and career of Warren R. Schmidt. He sits next to his wife of many years, Helen (June Squibb), never once looking comfortable or relaxed. Eventually he flees his own party for the solitude of the bar.
Warren then begins to make some attempt at life after retirement. He makes awkward attempts to find some kind of routine, even going in to the old office, just to make sure everything is OK. He’s at loose ends, with nothing to occupy his time. His wife, for the most part, goes on with her daily routine, with Warren tagging along and growing ever more resentful of her very presence. One day while watching television, he happens upon a program promoting a charity in which one “adopts” a needy child for mere cents a day, thus helping that child rise from poverty. Warren, covertly for some reason, signs up. After receiving his packet from the charity, he notices that they encourage “foster parents” to write letters to the young recipients of their largesse. Thus begins a wonderfully unusual type of voice over narration, as Warren spills his guts to his six-year-old “foster son”, telling him all sorts of things he can’t possibly express to his wife or daughter.
As tragedy enters Warren’s life, we meet his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and her fiancé, Randall (Dermott Mulroney). Warren hates Randall, plain and simple. Even at this crucial juncture in his own life, he does his best to impose his will upon his daughter. He fails. Warren is now forced to embark upon a journey to find meaning in this new life into which he has been thrust against his will. We watch Warren confront his past, his present and his future.
Director Alexander Payne and co-writers Payne and Jim Taylor offer up a terribly intimate look at a man who has never been looked at intimately, nor had any desire to be looked at intimately. Warren is a stoic, practical man. His discomfort at the rituals of daily existence outside his usual routine is palpable. His impulsive actions are taken with a kind of furtive uneasiness, usually ending with him embarrassed, rebuffed and fleeing. Warren’s story, despite its frequent absurdities, rings so true that it sometimes hurts to watch his displacement from a world that was once so comfortable and familiar. The film has a wonderful balance of ridiculous, comical and heartbreakingly poignant moments. We get a funny, sad, and wonderfully awkward look at the life of a man whose world is changing without his permission. He does his best to cope with these changes, but he is most certainly reluctant, not to mention completely unprepared, to do so.
Warren’s family finds him exasperating, to say the least. While sympathizing with his circumstances, his daughter is unable to let go of her history with her father. We get the distinct impression that it was no piece of cake growing up with this man. His dislike of Randall is simply icing on the cake. Randall, for his part, does his level best to be a member of the family during this time. But his efforts simply reinforce the notion already firmly held by Warren that the man is a complete boob. The haircut doesn’t help.
Jack Nicholson gives a stellar performance as Warren. After all of his antics in the press over the years, he can still roll up his sleeves and dig into a part like no one else. His facial expressions alone make up a goodly part of the character of Warren. Rarely do you see emotion so well expressed visually. Grief, confusion, and more than anything else, disturbed discomfort, all play across Nicholson’s face effortlessly. He manages to give Warren an air of uneasy desperation without making the character into a complete buffoon. The comic moments all tend to be offset by quieter, more contemplative ones that show us that actions don’t always speak for themselves. Underlying all of Warren’s actions – silly, sad, pretentious, disdainful – is a sense of aimlessness. Nicholson gives Warren the distinct feel of a man trying desperately to control a life that is rapidly spinning away from him. He never seems to do or say the right thing, and simply can’t bring himself to deal honestly with his situation. Even the often hilarious letters to his “foster son” have an underlying tone of stubborn, lonely stoicism masquerading as bravado and self delusion. Nicholson never lets Warren wallow for long. He’s always back to trying to be in control, even after the bleakest of moments.
The rest of the cast is solid as well. Hope Davis as Jeannie doesn’t have a lot to work with, but she plays the exasperated daughter well, without letting her character drift into blind acceptance of her father now that his life is in shambles. She clearly had her problems with him before, and still does. Davis plays this rather unforgiving role quite well. Dermot Mulroney is just a hoot. His Randall is dim, often inappropriate, but tries so hard that you just can’t really hate the guy. A nice performance. The two standout supporting roles go to Kathy Bates as Randall’s mother, Roberta, and Howard Hesseman as Randall’s father, Larry. Bates is a woman comfortable with herself, full of opinions and often completely without tact. She plays Roberta with a wonderful lack of self-consciousness that makes for a delicious foil for Nicholson’s uptight Warren. Hesseman’s Larry is a hippie throwback with a tendency toward babbling aimlessly – but who is quick to enter into petty bickering with ex-wife Roberta. Bates and Hesseman have an easy on screen rapport that goes a long way toward making the characters entertaining rather than annoying.
About Schmidt is ultimately a testament to the acting ability of Jack Nicholson and the inherent tension of an abrupt change in a once comfortably rigid life. Many viewers will recognizes pieces of people they know in their own lives in Warren, making the story all the more accessible. The clever set up for the voice over narration not only serves a purpose by letting Warren directly address the audience, but also reveals much about the character. Warren often doesn’t have the ability to admit when things are bad or he is wrong, so his spin in the letters is quite entertaining. In the end, About Schmidt is a small piece in a regular life turned upside down. Excellent performances and an at times witty, sad and achingly true screenplay combine to make this a truly fine movie. I highly recommend it.