About Schmidt (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The film begins on the day of Schmidt's retirement. He watches the clock approach 5 PM, knowing that it marks the end of life as he has known it. Like most of us, he has settled into a life of comfortable routine, and will soon cut adrift from the ship of routine, stranded in an unknown sea.

Once he settles down with his wife in retirement, he realizes that he doesn't really like her company. That is true until she dies, at which time revisionism takes over and he worships her and realizes he can't function without her. That is true until he finds her old love letters from his best friend, written during Schmidt's marriage to her. Then he hates her again, throws out everything that reminds him of her, and alienates himself from the devoted friend.

How to pass the time during retirement? Schmidt first wants to rekindle the special relationship he once had with his beloved daughter, except that she is pretty much horrified at that prospect, and is in the process of getting married to "a complete nincompoop" of whom Schmidt disapproves. Schmidt then thinks that perhaps he can be useful in the office, but is disappointed to learn that everything is under control.  Finding himself with no job, no wife and no family, and another 9 years to live (he's an actuary by trade), he begins a desperate search for something to give meaning to those 9 years.

He ends up taking a road trip, visiting some places which are dear to his memory - his childhood home, his college frat house, and so forth. He finds that too many years have passed for this to have any meaning. His home is a tire store, nobody remembers him at the university, and the frat guys don't have any interest in passing time with an old geezer.

The final act of the film centers around his daughter's wedding. Schmidt arrives in Denver and interacts with his new in-laws, with mixed results, although one must concede that the results could have worked out better for him if he hadn't constantly tried to persuade his daughter to call off the marriage.

The film is framed by a sharp comic device. Schmidt has agreed to be a foster parent for a third world boy, and is encouraged to send his foster son personal letters with the monthly donation. These letters are unrelated to interpersonal communication. They never acknowledge the interests of an impoverished African orphan, but simply express Schmidt's frustration at the world, allowing him to add a voice-over narration to some visualizations. When he talks to Ndugu, he is talking to himself.  We smile in anticipation every time we hear him say "and so, Ndugu ..." It's also a device which allows the filmmaker rich opportunities for irony, as we watch what really transpired while we hear Schmidt's very different spin of the incidents.

It is a very intelligent film which probably falls short of being the great film that critics seemed to see, because it offers no emotional anchor or audience identification. The scriptwriter has created no character whom he would consider to be an equal, and we have no character with which we can identify. The tone is maddeningly condescending toward everybody and everything. The only really likeable and recognizably human character is Schmidt's lifelong best friend, played by Len Cariou, who infuses a very small role with natural humanity. Schmidt himself seems to inspire our pity, but not our empathy. It is true that his wife died, his employer no longer needs him, and he's about to lose his daughter forever by refusing to accept her marriage to a nincompoop. He is alone and he is lonely, but he has made his own bed and is only too willing to lie in it. He's a hypochondriac, he's self-pitying, and he expects to get love and respect without giving any in return. He's right: the guy marrying his daughter is a nincompoop, but he fails to realize that the guy who married his wife was also a nincompoop, and that he expected others to accept him anyway, as we all do. The son-in-law may be a moron with a mullet, but he's also a sweet guy who seems to love Schmidt's daughter genuinely. When Schmidt does not accept that, he pushes away the last person in the world who might actually be happy to see him if he would try to accept and support her.

The rest of the comic ensemble is eccentric and unfailingly tacky, like a Danish teenager's view of middle aged Americans based upon a few people with Midwestern "Fargo" accents that wander through Copenhagen each summer wearing Hawaiian print shirts and Bermuda shorts. That simplistic view of America is something I fought hard to combat when I lived overseas, yet it is reinforced in this film.

The fact that every character is beneath us can be very funny, but it also thrusts the film into a world of black comedy at a level of blackness so Stygian that few films are smart enough to emerge in greatness. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one great film where every character is loathsome or pathetic, and that is Dr. Strangelove. This movie is good, but is not in the Strangelove league. The fact that it keeps putting everyone down, showing us their weaknesses and eccentricities, could have been a device to allow us inside them, but instead it served to distance us from them. (Possible excepting Kathy Bates, who seemed to take it upon herself to make her character much more endearing than what was indicated by the words she was speaking.)

The last two minutes the film strive mightily to sift some genuine human feeling out of the condescension, asking us to bring our noses down from the air and get our handkerchiefs beneath them. Schmidt receives a letter from the nun who has been caring for his African foster child. She thanks Schmidt for his concern, but gently reminds him that the boy is six years old and cannot read or write in his own language, let alone in English. Although the boy really can't relate to the letters, he understands that an American man is being kind to him, so the boy has made a drawing for his kind foster father. The drawing closes the film, and shows us that Schmidt, at least in a small way which saddens him, has managed to connect with one human being in the way he wishes he could have connected better with others. This anonymous boy, to whom he has poured out his heart, is the closest he has come to a meaningful connection in his life.

Jack Nicholson was an Oscar candidate for his performance as Schmidt. To tell you the truth, I think he did a great job, but it was a role that pretty much any professional actor his age could have played. The character of Schmidt, so beaten down by life, so repressed, so inward, is a role which doesn't draw upon any of Nicholson's unique resources as an actor. Having said that, I also should note that the restraint he brought to the part was, in itself, very fine acting, since it would have be inappropriate if the character had been more like Jack Nicholson.

NUDITY REPORT

Kathy Bates is naked! We see her breasts clearly in a close shot as she removes her robe. The camera then pulls back and we see a long shot of her entering the hot tub naked.

Jack Nicholson shows his buns briefly.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1.

  • 9 deleted scenes

New York Magazine ran a perceptive and insightful review which dug much deeper than the usual movie column.

"These filmmakers have a feeling for the isolation of blasted lives, but they also canít resist putting them down. About Schmidt doesnít bring us deeply into the lives of its people because itís too busy trying to feel superior to them."

TUNA's THOUGHTS

About Schmidt (2002) was a critical hit, and I am sure all of you have seen page after page of review, including the very thoughtful one written by Scoopy. While I see all of his points, I enjoyed the film much more than he seemed to. True, all of the characters, with the possible exception of Kathy Bates, were rather pitiful, but Nicholson, cast very much against type, held me riveted through much of the film. Bates, as the mother of the groom, was absolutely irrepressible. I greatly admire her for the courage to do a nude hot tub scene at her age. Nicholson, not to be outdone, shows his buns in the next scene.

The IMDB score of 7.7 is very high for what is a long (125 minutes) character driven black comedy. It is even more remarkable given that it focuses on the amazingly ordinary and unimportant life of an actuary from Omaha. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar, and won the Golden Globe. As is often the case for me, I agree with the Golden Globe.

 

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Entertainment Weekly A.

  • The film was nominated for five Golden Globes, including best picture (Drama), best director, and best adapted screenplay. Jack Nicholson was also nominated for Best Actor by the Academy, Kathy Bates for best supporting actress.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Split balloting so far. As I write this, IMDb voters score it a sterling 7.7/10. The more down-to-earth Yahoo voters appraise it at a solid, but run of the mill 3.5/5, and Metacritic users have it way down at 5.8/10
  • Box office mojo. A solid hit. Budget: $30 million production, $15 million for promotion. It grossed $64 million, meaning it almost broke even at the box office alone, will turn a sold profit after broadcast rights, foreign, rental, and retail sales.

 

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop said, "C+. A brilliant black comedy which tries to use condescending humor to reach inside the emotions of the situations, but seems to keep too much distance between the audience and the characters. It ends up working very well as a comedy, but fails when it gets serious, like a relative with whom you normally maintain a superficial politeness suddenly gushing drunkenly how much he loves you." Tuna said, "This film is somewhere between a high C+ and a B-. It appeals to a much broader audience than black comedy normally would. There is also an upbeat moral to the story. Do not live your life like Schmidt, focused on your job and your suburban nest, lest you wake up on retirement day and realize you have missed your whole life."

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