(2002) dir. Alexander Payne
viewed: 02/01/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA
Alexander Payne’s depressing critique of American life that plays out in his new film About Schmidt is less purely absurdist and comical than in his 1999 feature, Election. Both films are set in the American “heartland,” Omaha, Nebraska to be exact, and address themselves to an occasionally sympathetic, but otherwise striking criticism of the film’s characters and the world that they inhabit. Whereas Election employed a broader humor, giving it a sense of satire, About Schmidt has a more muted tone, one that seems more obviously downbeat.
Now I feel that I must preface this by saying that there may be some “generational” difference of interpretation on this; my step-mother found the movie hilarious, and recommended it strongly. And I think that finding the humor in it might make it seem less of a “downer”. But at the same time, I think that Election had a really negative, sort of depressing side to it that was merely masked by its light humor, so maybe my read of the film may seem apt. Still, I want to throw that out there.
(I don’t want to give away too many plot details, but if you are afraid of me spoiling it for you, maybe you should read no further.)
Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, upon retiring, comes to realize that the life that he built, his relationship with his wife and daughter, his job, his place in the community, his Republican values, are nothing more than a sham. His realizations isolate him from those with whom he wants to connect. The film’s point of view is rather sympathetic to Schmidt’s mindset, but there are moments of distancing him from the audience as well. For instance, his in-laws are cheesy and obnoxious, but well-meaning and not mean-spirited, yet he fails to warm to them. Perhaps someone who identified more closely with Schmidt’s background would see them as detestable. Perhaps then, the film is actually criticizing Schmidt himself, his inability to cope with the changes and realizations in his life.
At the end of the film, he states rather unequivocally that he is essentially just waiting to die, that the life that he has led has been utterly meaningless and will be totally eradicated in time. In the final scene he recieves a letter from an African orphan that he has been sponsoring, which encloses a simple drawing, which moves him to tears. This ending seems a bit open for reading: has he found some simplistic joy in having made some small positive action in the world or is it tragic that the only way that he can feel that way is through some artificial process, initiated via television, and completely removed from his daily reality?
Schmidt’s situation is only tragic from his own somewhat selfish standpoint. The reality in which he finds himself may be far from ideal to his perspective and certainly a letdown, considering his aspirations and life’s work, but the sadness, in which the audience is meant to share to some extent, seems steeped in self-pity.
I can easily imagine that someone might sympathize with him to a greater extent than I did, though I would be pressed to try and suggest the director’s intent in this regard. The film does seem open for reading, which may be to its merit. I don’t know.