Middle-Aged Crazy

Making a difference (ha ha): Jack Nicholson in 'About Schmidt'
New Line Cinema

Alexander Payne has done the impossible: The director of Election has pushed Jack Nicholson to become an actor again. In Payne's About Schmidt, Nicholson plays a retiring assistant vice president at a life insurance firm in Omaha, Nebraska. Warren Schmidt is a pursed, droopy fellow carrying more than a few extra pounds. He whines. When he tries to kiss women half his age, they scream and run. (Aha! Reality bites!) In certain lights, Nicholson is unrecognizable. Except for the eyebrows. And a gleam in his eye that says Warren is smarter than he's acting.

That gleam reflects Payne's perspective (no pun intended). There's a cynical intelligence behind this "whimsical" tale of a retiree's attempts to find meaning in his life. It makes me ask: Who is Payne's intended audience? About Schmidt runs on satire and sentimentality. It mocks the white working class with an insouciance I thought had gone out of style. (Welcome back, Republicans.) The "feminized" white suburban middle class--which Warren exemplifies--suffers not a few jabs, though our hero is beatified in the end. And yet I doubt this movie was made for retiring assistant vice presidents of Nebraskan life insurance firms. It seems to be pandering to a different class's notions about such assistant vice presidents.

Retirement robs Warren Schmidt of his most beloved perks: the illusion of power, distance from his wife, distraction from thinking. In boredom, he is driven to sign up for one of those support-a-poor-foreign-child charities. As he writes his assigned child a letter to accompany a very small check, Warren's calm recitation of personal history spirals into an enraged recount of current injustices: the company brat who took over his position, the wife who tortures him with her smell, her snore, her doll collections.

It's a promising start. June Squibb, as the wife Helen, is perfect: round and soft and gray. She looks like a million women I see in malls, but never see in movies. How does Helen feel about Warren's habits? Will the marriage survive Warren's retirement? I should've known by the way Payne pushes the viewer's face into Helen's armpit that she wasn't gonna get equal time. This is a woman, after all, who demands that Warren sit while he pees. She has emasculated him. Payne kills her. (It's not a surprise.) Helen's death sends Warren into an orgy of pain, anger (upright peeing--all over the bathroom!), self-doubt, reflection, forgiveness, attempts at control, regret, mourning. Nice acting, but...whatever. It's such an easy way out.

Of course, it's not my job to tell Payne what movie he should've made, even if his male journey of self-discovery was worn to threads before Eliot imagined "an old man in a dry month." (Payne's screenplay adapts--or, rather, reduces--Louis Begley's novel.) But I can say that the portraits of women are uglier here because a female character is never granted her own perspective. (On the other hand, Election did allow young women to be protagonists, and it still ran on misogyny's gassy fumes.) Payne mocks everybody (besides the upper and upper middle classes), but the story belongs to Warren. And that makes a difference when not-so-svelte-himself Nicholson is backing hurriedly away from the abundant nakedness of Kathy Bates. We don't sniff Jack's armpit.

The same is true of the middle class versus working class satire. Warren's princess of an only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) has moved to Denver and is marrying a retail clerk. Randall (Dermot Mulroney) has a really outstanding mullet, a gold-capped eyetooth, and a small business plan that he swears is not a pyramid scheme. When Warren stays at the house of Randall's mother (Bates) before the wedding, she confides that Randall breastfed until he was almost five. Randall's old room features a waterbed, a Miller beer light, and many fourth and fifth place awards for attendance. The audience at the screening I attended laughed their well-coifed heads off. Would Warren's own taste be hilarious? Who knows? We only see him reacting to rooms that other people have chosen.

Jeannie fights Warren's attempts to stop the wedding, but she never says why she's choosing Randall; viewed through Warren's eyes, she just looks stupid. In fact, viewed through Warren's eyes, everybody looks stupid, including Warren. But he gets to have a good cry to redeem himself, and that's not an option for everyone else. What I can't figure out is the nature of Warren's redemption. There's some gobbledygook about "making a difference," but--to be as cynical as Payne--that's just window dressing. I think Warren's tears provide the cum-shot in this pornography of class disgust. The professional, urban audience cries a little, too, for all the poor people with poor taste and pathetic lives. Maybe later they'll put a little check in the mail. Somewhere, Payne snickers.

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