About Schmidt (2003) – movie review

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Movie Review by S Felce

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, Kathy Bates
Director: Alexander Payne

ABOUT SCHMIDT is the story of an ordinary man with an ordinary life. It is a ‘dramatic comedy’ in which there is space to laugh and to cry. It is a satire of the American middle class’ obsession with a perfect and successful life. Above all, it is a one-man film, with Jack Nicholson’s outstanding performance leading throughout the whole movie.

Nicholson is Warren Schmidt, a 66 year-old man who has just retired after working in an insurance company all his life. He is already feeling aimless when his wife (June Squibb) dies suddenly. Just to confound him further his only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is getting married to a man he thinks is too mediocre for her. Schmidt starts thinking about his life, wondering whether he has done anything meaningful. He decides that the only thing he can do to fulfil his life is to stop his daughter marrying a loser. He sets off for Denver, where his daughter lives, in his luxury motor home on what will become a journey of self-discovery.

During his journey to Denver, Schmidt recalls the speech his best friend made at his work retirement party about things Schmidt should be proud to have accomplished in his life: a good job, a beautiful house He mulls on these one by one. Also just before his wife died, Schmidt started sponsoring a six year-old Tanzanian boy called Ndugu. During the journey he writes letters to the little boy. These letters develop into a continual dialogue throughout the movie, while he goes back to the city where he was born, his family house and his high school. Ndugu becomes Schmidt’s confidant with whom he begins to explore, for the first time, his life.

Finally he arrives in Denver only to discover that there is no way he can stop Jeannie from marrying her waterbed salesman, Randal (Dermot Mulroney). He returns home feeling miserable, as he realises that he’s done nothing significant in his life. All his dreams as a young man were never fulfilled and now he believes he’s making mistakes with his daughter’s life as well. But he then receives guidance from someone he would have least expected it from.

The film cleverly plays with the drama making it comical. Besides it is very ironic, because it’s not only a story about an old man’s life in crisis, but in a bigger picture is a metaphor of American society’s ideals. Schmidt dreamt of becoming a famous and rich man. When he goes to Denver to try to sabotage Jeannie’s wedding, his future son-in-law and his family are the opposite of what Schmidt had in mind for his daughter and himself – working class, not highly educated, pretentious and hippy. And yet, everybody else, apart from Schmidt, can see that Jeannie has made a new home for herself. She hasn’t become somebody rich and important but she is happy and content.

Above all, this movie is a sincere portrait of real life and explores the values of everyday people, describing their life and their true feelings. There are no miracles or redemptions at the end of the film. Everything feels so realistic and down to earth that one can either be scared of it or like it, but it is the world we all live in. Nicholson’s portrait of Schmidt is terrific. He looks so delicate and defenceless with his slow walk and his trembling hands. Overall, director Alexander Payne has made an excellent job, producing an intense piece of work and giving Nicholson the chance to shine once again.

5 out of 6 stars