It’s that face that lingers in one’s mind, long after the closing credits. You’ve likely seen the face before, albeit in slightly different mutations. It shows elements of McMurphy’s post-lobotomy catatonia in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Jack Torrance’s frozen stare at the end of “The Shining”, and Melvin Udall’s expressions of simmering discontent in As Good As It Gets.
It’s the face of Jack Nicholson, of course, and director Alexander Payne spends a fair bit of time focusing on it in “About Schmidt.” The film, a darkly comedic exploration of a retiree waking from the American pipe dream, has given Nicholson a chance to act his age and still deliver a strong performance. Nicholson is amalgamating many familiar roles with Warren Schmidt, one of his more challenging characters. It’s worth noting the aforementioned Nicholson characters were people on the societal fringe, yet Schmidt is the product of mainstream society. Nicholson nonetheless nails this Regular Joe character as effectively as those flamboyant roles of yesteryear.
Schmidt’s a retiring assistant VP of a midwestern insurance company. Soon after he retires, his life begins to unravel. Unaccomplished dreams and resentment start to creep into his psyche, wherein he starts to blame his wife Helen (June Squibb) for limiting his upward mobility during their early years. When Helen suddenly dies, he’s left in an uncomfortable stasis, alone and confronting the horrors of an unfulfilled life. The hand of fate and his own misguided priorities have led him down a path of uncertainty, and as a widower he’s come face-to-face with his own mortality. He sets out on a redemptive journey from his Omaha, Nebraska nest to Denver, where he hopes to win back his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) from Randall (Dermot Mulroney), her “nincompoop” fiancé.
This is where Payne shines. Schmidt’s Winnebago journey through America’s heartland is more like a personal voyage into his Heart of Darkness. Payne conjures up a sense of decay and lost dreams in these scenes – a random shot of Schmidt driving absent-mindedly with his turn signal flickering, splattered bugs and bird droppings on the windshield, vacant strip malls, and the tire store that lies where Schmidt’s boyhood home once stood.
The end of this journey is a nightmare come true: his daughter’s wedding. Adding to the anxiety is Randall’s mom Roberta (Kathy Bates). Roberta is the antithesis of the reserved Schmidt, a hard-drinking, potty-mouthed and sexually open earth momma. The rest of Randall’s family and his trashy boyhood neighborhood repulse Schmidt, particularly given that they represent the life his only daughter has chosen. One could argue that Payne is sneering at these common people with their receding hairlines, bloated bellies, bad clothes and crackpot pop-psychology meanderings. Such a criticism misses the point – Payne is digging more at the system that produced these people, filling their heads with lofty dreams and inoculating them with cheap material comforts. No one here acts particularly repulsive – they are normal, friendly human beings doing what they can to live the dream. Schmidt’s dream has gone, however, and he could easily be asking Melvin Udall’s question: “what if this is as good as it gets?”
“About Schmidt” uses a clever tool to reveal Schmidt’s self-discovery. Spurred by a late-night infomercial, he sponsors a five-year old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. As Schmidt sends monthly checks, he also starts pouring his heart into letters to the little boy. The adult nature of his conversations offers key humorous moments. These narrated letters also unearth his insular, myopic viewpoint on the world, such as the moment where he reveals to Ndugu his first discussion with a “real” Native American, noting his epiphany that “they got a real raw deal.”
In the end, Schmidt’s opening of his heart and checkbook offer both personal catharsis and redemption, although he’s been raked through the coals in the process. The face does thankfully change, but the haunted man staring at a cold, alien world still resounds in one’s mind after the theater lights come up.