At the start of About Schmidt, Alexander Payne’s latest hilarious ode to Omaha, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) sits at his empty desk with nothing to do. He is retiring on this day, but the way he watches the clock, then doesn’t watch it, then watches it, until it’s finally time to go, suggests that much of his 40-plus years as an insurance actuarial executive was spent the same way. He doesn’t watch in anticipation of finally escaping to the world right outside his door; neither does he watch in fear of his inevitable encounter with that world. He watches because that’s his routine.
Schmidt’s life is all about such routines: the drinks he orders, the shows he watches, the items he picks up at the store. His retirement is the first in a string of occurrences that force him to figure out who he is and what has become of his life.
Schmidt has been retired only a few days when his wife Helen (June Squibb) dies from an aneurysm while vacuuming. Schmidt is understandably shocked when he walks in to find her crumpled on the floor, the dustbuster still whirring beside her. He has no idea what to do. In the days after Helen’s death, Schmidt struggles to find his place. He offers help to the young man who’s taken over his job, but is told in so many words that he’s not welcome at his old company anymore. He speaks out against his daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) engagement to a waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney), but she rebukes him in a nonchalant way that makes him feel insignificant.
It’s a succession of events that could make the average fictional American white male take his own life and/or those of a McDonald’s full of innocent bystanders. But the expression on Schmidt’s face every time he encounters another crisis does not convey anger, but befuddlement. If Schmidt should do something, he sure as heck doesn’t know what it is.
With his wife gone and his daughter defiant, Schmidt has nobody to confide in, so he turns to Ndugu, an orphaned Tanzanian boy he’s committed to help after seeing a “Save the Children”-like commercial on tv. For a nominal fee per month — and through hilarious voiced-over letters — Schmidt vents about everything that’s frustrating him, and there’s plenty on his mind.
About Schmidt is certainly about Schmidt, but it’s more specifically about the dependencies he must confront, after he’s left to depend on himself. He depended on Helen to keep things running smoothly at home, and he depended on his job to keep him away from Helen. Neither dependency is obvious to Schmidt, but when both are taken away, it’s not a pining for yesteryear that commands his thoughts, but the annoying little things that he put out of his mind for so long — the way Helen took out her keys way before she got to the car and other idiocyncrasies.
Schmidt’s nitpicking of Helen after her death can be construed as childish, but it can also be construed as moments of clarity for a man who, after seemingly losing everything all at once, realizes that he’s been slowly losing his identity for 40 years. Still, he shows his frustration not by crying or yelling or some other vicious outburst — he’s emasculated enough to be incapable of such behavior — he simply sets off on a road trip to “find himself.”
There is a sinister normalcy to Payne’s portrayal of Middle America. You watch About Schmidt — or Election or Citizen Ruth — and, if you’ve spent any time in a U.S. suburb, you feel at home no matter how uncomfortable home might be. You recognize your own friends and family in the characters who have boring conversations about gas mowers and mortgage rates; who limit their goals to getting good jobs and raising big families; who, like Schmidt, talk of daughters with “good jobs” as accounts receivable clerks. Payne presents an ever-so-nimbly slanted reality that brings out the hilarious monotony of modern living.
For example, Schmidt climbs atop a motor home he’s purchased to do the standard I’m-retired-so-I’m-hitting-the-road thing. As he stares at the night sky, he sees a shooting star and raises his eyebrow as if he’s seen his whole life in that star, but then he falls asleep. When he wakes the next morning, cold and disoriented, he has an epiphany and speeds off, leaving Helen’s set of gnome collectibles on the roof. He heads to a low rent section of Denver, where he shares a hot tub with his daughter’s mother-in-law-to-be Roberta (Kathy Bates), who can’t stop talking about her recent hysterectomy. Nothing she says makes him like the woman more, but he sticks around nonetheless, unwilling and even unable to do more than fumble through the evening and following morning. Bates plays her with an assured absurdity that will leave your jaw as dropped as Schmidt’s.
What makes Schmidt’s passivity rewarding is that it’s Jack Nicholson we’re watching. These days, it’s almost as clichéd to say that Nicholson is doing a great job of not being Jack as he is at being Jack, but the bottom line is that a director would be crazy to want Nicholson and not take advantage of his singular comic flare, and Payne is not crazy. Nicholson is as restrained as he’s ever been, and his unpredictability makes Schmidt’s muddling that much funnier. Schmidt may look like a loser, but out in the heartland, he’s a neighbor.
A friend of mine once said that the only difference between successful and unsuccessful people is execution. That may sound like a catchphrase from the dot-com era, but there is at least some truth to it: talent or no talent, if you cannot execute on your abilities in adverse circumstances, you will not obtain a generally accepted level of success.
By that definition, the only true success in any of Payne’s movies thus far is Tracy Flick, the caustic teenage power-monger played with aplomb by Reese Witherspoon in Election. She is also arguably the least likable lead character Payne and Taylor have invented. Schmidt, by comparison, has nothing that resembles a singular drive for success. On the contrary, he seems to be searching for something, anything, he can point to as a success now that he’s retired and virtually alone. And you’ll probably love him for it.
Yet, the beauty of Payne and Taylor’s characters is that you can go either way on them. You might relate to Flick’s drive and be enraged by Schmidt’s malleability. Either way, they’re human. Payne excels at creating social satires not just because his portrayals are dead-on, but also because, above all else, he respects his characters, which leaves us free to decide whether we’ll respect them as well.