About Schmidt. Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring Jack Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, Kathy Bates, Howard Hessman, Hope Davis.
Films in which somebody showed us something we really didn’t want to see. Basic Instinct: Michael Douglas’ sagging butt; Space Cowboys: James Garner’s wattled butt; The Bad Lieutenant: Harvey Keitel’s flaccid wahwah; Roger Rabbit: Bo Hoskins’ hairy back; Working Girl: Melanie Griffith’s gelatinous belly oozing over black undies; Heat: that thingie on Val Kilmer’s arm, whatever it was.
Now, I’m a vulgar man, as may be evident enough from these brief and overwritten reviews. A vulgar man. Yet even I wasn’t prepared for the sight of Kathy Bates (50 years old, 5’5”, 250 lbs) stark necked and worse yet: wet. I invite you to a moment of quiet reflection upon it. Done? All right then, if you’re not prepared to see on the screen for real that to which your imagination just treated you in fantasy, stay away from Schmidt. God grant us all to know when it’s time to stop wearing those tight jeans and midriff-revealing tops (hint: when you’ve got more midriff than top), when it’s time to sun-bathe in privacy on the back porch and not at the beach, when it’s time to shed that pony-tail (man or woman), when it’s time to hit that hot-tub alone, annnnnnnnd… just what even a jaded conception of art authorizes. Woof! I thought my heart was gonna stop. Usher had to administer a gummi bear I.V. before my vision cleared and I could breathe again. Fair warning!
By now everyone knows that when Jack Nicholson shows up, it’s all over. He is our grandest American ac-toor (our bulkiest, too, lurking up there in the critical mass category these days and giving even Brando a run for his honey), a celebrity whose mere presence in a flick assures us of a jagged, edgy weightiness and him of an Oss-car nomination (his umpteenth). Somewhere there in the theory realm, though, under-playing and not-playing got fused: it may look to you dummies who walked in off the street as if Jack sleep-walks through his part as Warren Schmidt, a stodgy mid-American numbed by his durance as mid-level actuary in a mid-western insurance megalith whereas us cinee-mah adepts can see he’s actually registering existential ennui (French for: “What’s Judge Judy wearing under that?”) and ontological Angst (German for: “Jeeeezus! Macaroni and cheese again?”) and otium (Latin for: “Hey, anybody seen the remote?”) as he peers expressionless into the camera lens, sits motionless in idle study, lies immobile on a rooftop for twenty minutes at a time (in fact, the only time those heavy-lidded eyes reveal any kind of emotion is the moment Kathy Bates decides to cement her place in film history—as the most regrettable skin scene since Gielgud showed us his septuag septagu sept tired old butt in The Tempest—when they blow wide with horror, as well they might!). “Underacting” they call this approach; “restraint,” they call this strategy. You may find another word for it, as you reach for your wallet only to discover that $6.50 has evaporated from it.
Warren Schmidt retires from Woodmen Insurance, to find his mousy wife (June Squibb) waiting for him back in gray suburbia with a monster Winnebago in which the couple plans to drift even farther into the Heartland to marry off their pinched-up daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis, who does rather the most plausible job in this thing as an unprepossessing woman on the cusp of middle age grasping at a last chance—and feeble enough one—for family and conventional, read bourgeois life), to every father’s nightmare, Ray (Dermot Mulroney, sporting a Fu Manchu ‘stache, mullet, and thinning pate—read Oss-car time!—as a ne’er-do-well waterbed salesman whose ambition is to make one of those Ponzi schemes work). When his wife suddenly dies, Schmidt lapses into depression and lethargy, not so much over the death, we are left to conclude, as over the misspent years of his gray and getting grayer life, a life in which nothing much happened and of which nothing much will remain soon enough. What to do? Nothing, that’s what. And that’s what you just paid $6.50 to discover. Schmidt clambers into his Winnebago and blunders across the country, savoring small-scale Americana (the museum of this or that, the statue of those or these, and on and on: read Lolita or Breakfast of Champions for much better indictment of the world just off the Interstate). It soon becomes evident that the ticket being peddled here—to the extent that something other than menopausal inertia is at stake—is the shallowness and laughability of small towns and small people, us: our pathetic reliance on television, our futile attempts at rhetoric, our arid ambitions, our cheesy furniture and bric-a-brac, our idiot haircuts, our polluted faith.
Soooooo… Schmidt, who disapproves of the groom—and says so—buries his wife, goes to the wedding, gives away his daughter, and then… and then… and then: nothing. He goes back home to die. One clever device introduced into the narration is Schmidt’s wholly whimsical “adoption” of a Nigerian child, one of those you see wistfully peering out from the Sally Struthers ads on—of course—teevee and whom you can “save” without—once again—action, just by writing a check. To this one, Ndugu (played winsomely by Barbra Streisand in one of her most challenging roles to date), Schmidt confesses his suppressed rage, his confusion, his despair (like a kid starving in Nigeria needed Occidental angoisse on top of pellagra, beriberi, dengue, rickettsia, and on and on) and to us dummies, too, of course, as if we couldn’t tell why a middle-aged man who’d done nothing with his life might feel blue… now, alone, at the end of it. Just seems to me this idea didn’t need to be hit again and this America didn’t need lampooning again. My old man, who went through the Great Depression, World War II, Koh-rea, acute arthritis, alcoholism, liked his kitty-cat clock, the kind with the tail that wags back and forth as its eyes flick sideways: tick, tock… wig, wag… flick, flack… It tickled him to the day he died. Charles Foster Kane liked his sled. He had it on his mind the day he checked out. Who’s to say them nay? Or twit them for bad taste? We don’t need any more cinematic rehearsals of depression. We need some reasons for joy.