About Schmidt (2002)
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney,
Comedy drama About Schmidt is director Alexander Payne’s third feature film, following on from the critically adored and criminally underseen Election released three years prior. The film sees the lauded filmmaker team up with legendary character actor Jack Nicholson, who leads the cast as the titular Warren Schmidt.
Upon release, About Schmidt was met with a sizeable degree of acclaim, with some deeming it one of 2003’s very best. The Guardian awarded the film 5 stars and claimed it was one of Nicholson’s finest performances, while Empire labelled it “superb” and Total Film described it as “hilarious”. It was, at the time, by far Payne’s biggest hit at the box office, grossing over $100 million and finding itself in awards conversations, particularly for Nicholson’s performance (although Payne and frequent co-writer Jim Taylor did land nominations at the Golden Globes for Best Screenplay).
We are introduced to recently retired Warren Schmidt as he encounters an existential crisis, fearing that his time has not amounted to much and his life is somewhat mundane. Following the death of his wife, he takes his camper-van across the US to rediscover places from his past and journey to his daughter’s wedding. Along the way we are treated to an assortment of Warren’s inner monologues as he recounts his life story and dissatisfaction to a foster child in Tanzania that he has been sending money to. The monologues offer some of the film’s most humourous moments and allow Schmidt’s cynicism to creep in.
Schmidt is in keeping with many of the characters within Payne’s work. He is a difficult to approach individual who becomes more likeable and sympathetic as the film winds its course, the main success in this reoccurring trend throughout Payne’s filmography being that the characters are at different stages in life, so aside from being difficult there aren’t many similarities between Election’s Tracy Flick, Schmidt or Sideways’ Miles, and it is remarkable how Payne gives these characters so much depth within relatively brisk runtimes.
Nicholson’s lead performance is without question one of the film’s strongest points; it is so far removed from his traditional roles as villains or troubled individuals in the likes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Batman or The Shining. It feels truly refreshing to see him shine in a relatively downplayed and introspective role without much scenery chewing. His comedic timing, which had previously seen him on Oscar winning form in As Good As It Gets, is tremendous, the lead actor blending drama and comedy to perfection, creating some top notch chemistry with the rest of the cast (particularly Kathy Bates and Hope Davis as his daughter Jeannie) in the process.
The relationship Schmidt has with Jeannie, and Warren’s dissatisfaction with her fiancé Randall, gives the film a strong and empathetic emotional core, their relationships being entirely believable. Strained relationships between parents and children is a recurring motif in Payne’s films, with this topic also on display in The Descendants and Nebraska, though this 2002 release was arguably the first major thematic exploration of this type for this noteworthy filmmaker. Kathy Bates, as Randall’s mother, also performs exceptionally, her casting offering the chance for two acclaimed veterans to bounce off each other, with both earning Oscar nominations and Bates making the most of a relatively slight role.
In some ways, About Schmidt acts as a stepping stone for the career of writer-director Alexander Payne, as he would return in some fashion to road trip movies with both Sideways and Nebraska to very high acclaim. While strong in its own right, About Schmidt’s main problem is falling between arguably Payne’s two most acclaimed releases: Election and Sideways. For this reason, it is a curious film within his canon of work. It is perhaps a shame that its awards nominations were predominantly focused on Nicholson’s performance as the script is as sharp as one may expect and laced with depth.
About Schmidt is not quite Alexander Payne’s finest work, but it is certainly worth investing in, with the standout aspect being a stellar late career performance from Jack Nicholson who imbues our hero with a sense of remorse and regret as well as moments of humour. The chemistry with the rest of the leads is top notch and there are spins on traditional road trip movies and family dramas. Sitting where it does in Payne’s canon, About Schmidt is perhaps eclipsed by the films that followed, but it stands on its own two feet as a fine piece of work and a brilliant collaboration between one of America’s finest actors and one of its most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers.