2002, US, Directed by Alexander Payne
Colour, Running Time: 120 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, EIV; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DTS
After a lifetime of working hard and leading a respectable, conventional routine we catch up with Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) during the final minutes of his career as he sits there watching the clock count down towards his retirement. A nice big fuss is made with a dinner in his honour, speeches, etc., and Warren eventually wakes up on a new Monday morning not entirely sure what to do with his newfound freedom. A trip back to his old workplace paints a picture that suggests his purpose is served and his presence no longer welcome beyond surface gestures. His sympathy piqued by a television advert, Warren decides to sponsor the life of a third world child, Ndugu, in recognition of some deeper desire to do something worthwhile. In conjunction with this he also begins writing to the child to keep him up to date with what’s happening in his own life, this forming occasional parts of the story’s narrative. His optimistic wife Helen is looking forward to trying out their new motor home but a few weeks later she drops down dead and he’s left pretty much alone. After doing her bit following Helen’s death, their daughter Jeannie all but wants him out of the way until her wedding in a few weeks so when he sets off in his motor home to join up with her early a mid-trip phone call prompts her to emphasise the point that she doesn’t want him around until a couple of days before the wedding. So to kill time he embarks on a spontaneous road trip with the intention of revisiting places from his past, etc., seemingly on a quest to simultaneously eradicate boredom and find out what the point of his life was.
I often tend to warm to soul-searching kind of scenarios, ideas that force the central character(s) to explore their value to themselves and the world, the meaning of their existence (as well as that around them), who they are, etc. It’s something I can personally relate to and if the story is executed intuitively with talented people it can often result in a profound experience that goes beyond the fantastical confines of film. That’s what I found in About Schmidt. Despite being played by a very well known actor Warren Schmidt the person is thoroughly delineated to a point where he’s exceedingly real in many ways - his mind is visibly ticking away in response to many of the things that are happening around him and the script does not become so patronising as to have him verbalise every single thought. We can imagine what’s going on in his mind and very often empathise with it, or at least those with a tendency towards introspection and acute awareness may be able to. In fact it’s mostly in his spoken letters to Ndugu where we learn what’s going on inside his brain. The situations that he finds himself in often give way to a level of realism that is quietly embarrassing, such is their ability to tap into the nature of that which is fundamentally and contemporarily human, while at other times his encounters approach more of a traditional comedic style that’s not quite over the top enough to ruin it. It’s not, however, quite the straightforward comedy the marketing campaigners would have had you believe, more so a drama mixed with humour cum road movie - this sort of film almost creates its own cinematic category if one is even needed. What I also like is the air of unpredictability. What you very often expect to happen, given the experience of watching hundreds of movies before it, doesn’t - you may expect Warren to realise how much love is worth after his wife’s death, but then he finds out she’s had an affair years before and ends up throwing out her clothes in anger. Or you might expect him to find love in the divorced mother of Jeannie’s new husband, but it doesn’t quite work out like that. The people he comes across during his adventure are colourful and mundane at the same time and may in some cases remind you of some you know. It’s a truly meaningful story that’s ultimately about aging and the reflection of one’s own worth after a lifetime of doing what you’re supposed to, therefore becoming relevant to almost anybody and thus a significantly rewarding experience.
An amazing transfer that boasts a natural colour scheme with just about as much detail as standard definition can muster, combined with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks that, whilst not exploited to the full with this kind of material, do their subtle job very nicely. Extras are a tad limited but I like this kind of work to speak to the viewer for itself without the writers/directors/actors having to come along and explain it all for us. By the conclusion of the film, and as could be considered the case with real life, it’s really down the viewer to decide what the point of Schmidt’s existence was.