Come Back, Jack! Why Schmidt Is Shit (2003)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on February 1, 2003 @ Bright Lights Film Journal.

Payne capsized an actor and a novel in this misfire

About Schmidt drives another nail in the coffin of irony. About Schmidt is as lacking in irony as its blatant crayon drawing ending. It's a synthetic antidote to an ironic world, a superficial contrivance that is getting voluminous applause from those who should know better. It is not believable and doesn't earn suspension of disbelief.

But it's getting it, maybe because it is adept at pandering, making audiences feel superior to its characters, and also letting some have a good cry.

Irony has been a wonderful concept for films over the years. Film is an ideal forum to show the difference between appearance and reality, often juxtaposing them. One of the greatnesses of Citizen Kane (1941) is its irony, and Vertigo (1958) is one of the most ironic films ever made. A world without irony is a world without skepticism, without depth or perception, and therefore a world without understanding. The truth seldom is in the literal. Irony exposes that. Some filmmakers are aware. But Alexander Payne, the director and co-screenwriter of About Schmidt, isn't one of them.

About Schmidt is out to please everybody, so forget irony. There should be some irony in the world of Schmidt, given his life, but Payne and fellow writer Jim Taylor have siphoned it off, leaving a feel-good skit.

About Schmidt is the story of 66-year-old Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a midwesterner from Omaha, Nebraska, retired from his job as an insurance actuary, whose wife suddenly drops dead — of course she is dumpy — and leaves him aimless. To make a short story shorter, Schmidt decides to drive his Winnebago to Colorado to look in on his only daughter (Hope Davis), who is getting married to a clod (Dermot Mulroney), meets the fiance's family, has a brief hot tub encounter with the clod's mother (Kathy Bates), goes to the wedding, comes home, gets a drawing from a Tanzanian boy he is sponsoring, and weeps. Oh irony, this prattle yearns for you!

Director Payne in his public statements exhibits the arrogance of a film school brat. His posturing that he owes the novelist nothing — Payne took little more than the title from Louis Begley's fine novel About Schmidt — and that he's primarily been influenced by the personal cinema of the 1970s seems unaware. The 1970s were full of filmmakers who loved irony. Payne must have missed that class. (He was probably in Contrivance 101 learning to use dumb facial expressions, which he employs with the brother in the wedding scene.)

If Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) is too obtuse for him, I'd suggest he just watch the sequence at the end of The Godfather (1972) and the ironic juxtaposition of the baptism and the killings. Martin Scorsese — another godfather of personal cinema — also loves irony, whether it be in Mean Streets (1973), The Age of Innocence (1993) or Gangs of New York (2002). It's good Payne didn't get there first or it might be The Gangs of Omaha. He should realize that personal cinema doesn't mean just hijacking material and running helter skelter back to Omaha, his homeland.

Why did Payne only use the title of Begley's About Schmidt? Why didn't he go ahead and make his own script, which he originally called The Coward? Some irony there? Payne's usurpation means Begley's novel will never be made into a film. And that's a loss, because Payne and Taylor emasculated it.

First of all, in the book Schmidt is a New York lawyer. (Born in 1933, Begley is a liberal New York lawyer.) In the movie, Schmidt is an Omaha insurance man.

Second, the book takes place in the state of New York — Manhattan and the Hamptons. The movie takes place in Omaha and Colorado. Third, the book is about the upper crust, new and old. It is about taste and indiscretion. It's a world of good liquor and croissants. The movie is about Winnebagos, hot tubs, and stew.

Fourth, in the book, Schmidt is anti-Semitic. I wanted to see Jack Nicholson chew on that, as he did so effectively in As Good as It Gets. He is perhaps the only mainstream actor who can get away with it. In an interview, Begley told me, "Among the elements that have disappeared is Schmidtie's regrettable anti-Semitism. In the new context, Omaha, Nebraska, that makes sense: I don't think there are any Jews there." In the movie, Schmidt is not prejudiced; he's just a dud, so Nicholson was not challenged.

Fifth, in the book Schmidt is stalked by an ex-teacher, now a bum, and Schmidt kills him and almost kills himself in a car accident. The character and accident are gone from the movie.

Sixth, in the book Schmidt has a passionate affair with a young girlfriend. No sex for Schmidt in the movie. But he does have two urination scenes. And in the movie, instead of a girl friend and a sex life, he now has a foster child in Tanzania.

Begley's style and subtlety are gone; Payne's movie is crass and obvious. About Schmidt probably would have been just another Hollywood diversion if it were not for the casting of killer Jack Nicholson. If Payne usurps Begley's novel, he also usurps Nicholson's image. Since we know it's Nicholson, we can smile and laugh from the opening image. But instead of Jack Nicholson the ironist, we get Jack Nicholson the let-me-play-dull actor. What a fall from grace.

One could argue Schmidt is not Nicholson, but an actor is his character choices, and — with Nicholson's status — his choice of director. Nicholson's past keeps popping up in our consciousness. During the 1970s he was the ultimate iconoclastic, anti-Establishment maverick, in Easy Rider (1969), as Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In movies such as Chinatown (1974), irony not only existed, it prevailed. Nicholson's words still resonate from when he said in Easy Rider, "This used to be one hell of a good country."

Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson were the ironic duo. They dealt in various shades of darkness. Of Bobby Dupea, Rafelson told me, "Rafelson and Nicholson look into the mirror and see nothing." Then he added, "Nobody is simple to me." But Alexander Payne lives in a world of the simple.

The conservatives have co-opted a lot of things in recent years, and with About Schmidt they now can say, "I'm like Jack Nicholson." Limbaugh has outlived McMurphy.

Jack Nicholson has been the most ironic of actors. A raised eyebrow, a wicked grin, or a grimace of sardonic contemplation, there was always a fierce mind and soul. In About Schmidt, Nicholson's Warren Schmidt has heart, but little mind or soul. Nicholson has said he modeled some of his performance as Schmidt on Buster Keaton, but Nicholson's expressions are more like Zero Mostel. Glum and glummer.

Payne has transformed the rebel into a banality. Jack used to be a wiseass, but now he's changed. Don't blame age. Payne has turned his persona into a character who listens to Rush Limbaugh on the car radio complacently. No satire. No barbs to remind us of our humanity. Just second-rate sentimentality. Nicholson has seldom if ever given in to easy sentimentality. His emotional scene with his father in Five Easy Pieces was never easy, but the tears in About Schmidt come as though onion-induced. The movie's final message is that you can write a check to somebody you don't even know, and you're redeemed. That's supposed to bring tears to the audience. Maybe it's an example of trickle- down emotion.

Jack Nicholson can be a terrific actor. His fans love him. At the climactic wedding scene in About Schmidt, Schmidt gets up to give a toast. The audience in theaters across America stirs with anticipation ready for Jack to fire away. Instead Schmidt delivers a hypocritical toast. The movie winks at the audience and says, like you, Jack Nicholson compromises.

Jack, call Milos, or Bob, or Roman, immediately! We don't need a dull compromiser; we need, and desperately want, our swaggering ironist back.

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