January 30, 2003

Jack's Back

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Old people. Senior citizens if you’re politically correct. They are all over the place — Florida especially. We all have grandparents, we’ve heard their countless stories. We have seen pictures of their long existence that dwarfs ours. Yet, do we know what it is like to be at the final stage of our lives? Did you ever think of placing yourself in the shoes of someone entering this phase? About Schmidt is a film that does just that.

The film revolves around Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a 66-year old man whose conventional world shatters to pieces in a matter of weeks. Shortly after Schmidt retires from his job his wife passes away, and the comfort of having a daily routine and companion simultaneously vanish. In the future is his daughter’s wedding, an event Schmidt fears will leave him in a mortifying state of boredom and loneliness. The audience is invited to be his RV’s front-seat passenger as Schmidt makes a strange journey through Middle America.

From the opening shot of Schmidt lifelessly and childishly staring at the clock in his final minutes of employment, the retiree is portrayed as a man who has forever been controlled by outside forces. The camera follows Schmidt just about every minute; this face time, like the continuous coverage of Eminem in 8mile, succeeds in both developing the character and pushing the cinematic thesis as the movie progresses. During the film, it is revealed that Schmidt looks at his life as a wasted effort of supporting a family that is no longer there for him — he was a slave to the American way of survival. The few flashbacks in the movie show Schmidt bathing his baby daughter and hearing his mother’s voice in his childhood. Though these scenes glitter at first glance, the movie daringly points out that Schmidt has been in binding circumstances that required him to sacrifice the self-discovery that he is forced into so late in life.

About Schmidt is amazing to watch but often difficult to stomach. The losses that Schmidt suffers bring maturity by making him realize his life’s limitations while at the same time, these tragedies also bare his child-like impulses. This duality makes Schmidt an even more innocent character; he has been trapped in a social role for so long and it is only in his sixties that he can let his qualities and foibles emerge. This portrayal gives the benign wanderer a powerful yet harmless glow that makes this tough movie easier to watch.

Shortly after he retires, Schmidt decides to “adopt” a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. This is the one action in the movie that Schmidt makes completely of his own will. While he drives around MIddle America in his RV, Schmidt writes letters to Ndugu that pathetically and tenderly explain the life he has lived. While the letters to Ndugu at first seem to be pure satire, they develop into the bond that Schmidt has unsuccessfully been trying to form with other men throughout the movie including his son-in-law (Dermot Mulroney). Part of the reason Schmidt’s attempts at coming to terms with himself and friends do not work is because of the women in the film, who are constantly depicted as dominating and naturally controlling. This is seen in Schmidt’s late wife, hostile daughter and his daughter’s vulgar-mouthed mother-in-law (Kathy Bates). Tension between the sexes contributes to both the societal trap that Schmidt has been in and the womanless freedom that he has been catapulted into so late in life.

Nicholson delicately plays the role of a lifeless man whose restraint and passivity overshadow any trace of the comedic grin that viewers may expect from him. From As Good As It Gets’ Melvin to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Randle McMurphy, all of NIcholson’s famous characters have possessed some sort of hostile bitterness or revolt. The role of Warren Schmidt is such a noticeable deviation from the typecast that Nicholson’s mere presence manages to capture the gentlenss and fragility of an old, beaten-down man. The film touches on subjects such as regret, family and coping with loss while excellently capturing several dynamics between the various characters. However, the high point of the movie is one that only a viewer could really understand; it is in his RV and roaming about the countryside that Schmidt is given the freedom to explore what he has been unable to all his life — a road without boundaries.

HIs odyssey loses shape along the way but it is in the movie’s final moments that the ride finds its meaning when Schmidt does something for the first time: smile. Whether or not this tragic and personal story is appealing to a massive audience, About Schmidt has the ability to open its audience’s mind to the life of the aged, and open its heart towards an under-represented subject that has never been so well captured on film.

Archived article by Dan Cohen