Imagine the horror of living an unfulfilling life. Watching such a life unfold onscreen can cause empathetic discomfort, but in the right hands, it can also be outright hilarious. Such is the case in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a movie that manages to be both melancholy and stomach-crampingly funny.
Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) knows how to put a happy face on misery, but he's still just a cow heading for the slaughter after living a life without risks. He's recently retired from a lackluster career; he's been married for 42 years to a woman (June Squibb) he doesn't truly know and who doesn't understand him either; and he has a daughter (Hope Davis) with whom he's never been close and who is about to marry a man whom he rightfully calls a nincompoop (Dermot Mulroney).
In an attempt to inject meaning into his waning life, Schmidt becomes a foster parent to Ndugu Umbo, a starving six-year-old boy in Tanzania. As accompaniment to his first donation check, he writes the boy a letter, in which he expounds at length about the failures and aggravations of his life, focusing on his less-than-perfect living conditions that include a wife who collects too many knick knacks and won't let him pee standing up.
After Schmidt drops the liberating letter in the mail, a tragedy occurs unexpectedly. He suddenly finds himself alone in his incomplete life, and the look of total confusion and loss on his face speaks volumes: Living this life is not something he can do or even wants to do. So he decides to come to the rescue of his daughter, Jeanie, and prevent her from marrying Randall Hertzel and making what could be the biggest mistake of her life. But is he too late to take an active role in her life?
Nicholson looks terrible in this film, a perfect echo of his character's inner turmoil. His drooping skin, unkempt hair, and dazed look certainly are those of a man with little time left to make something of his life. Watching him travel the Midwest in his camper, on a private mission to find meaning in his life, truly hits home, and we realize there's a bit of Schmidt in all of us.
If Schmidt is the heart of this film, then the Hertzel family is the humor. Kathy Bates is the lively and ever-available Roberta, Randall's mother. I literally squirmed in my seat when Warren and Roberta met on screen, but moments later, I was bucking with laughter in that same seat as she yells at her ex-husband (Howard Hesseman). Just as Schmidt's struggle hits home because of the tragic reality of his persona, the story's humor works because it too is real. The dialog and situations, although often outlandish, strike a familiar chord: This stuff happens every day in good old America. We're just happy it's all happening to someone else. Or is it?
Some might consider the film's pacing to be a flaw. Although I personally enjoy the pace and believe it perfectly suits the subject matter and Schmidt's character, others might think it feels longer than its two hour run-time. Director and cowriter Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth) lets the story flow at a leisurely pace, and at times, it does feel slow. However, it must be said that the ending, which is so perfect and emotionally satisfying that no other ending would do, probably would not have been as rewarding had we gotten there any faster.
New Line Films presents About Schmidt in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks great. Although it might appear soft at times, it is generally sharp with a presentation that is clean and shows no noise whatsoever. Shadows are deep and blacks are solid. The film is never visually provocative or stunning, so the colors are rarely vibrant, but they do look very real and lifelike.
Despite being a soft-spoken character piece, the About Schmidt DVD includes both a Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround track. I was surprised that such a dialog-driven film warranted two digital tracks, especially since the differences between the two are negligible. The DTS track does deliver a slightly more crisp sound that could only be detected upon close inspection, but voices are clear on both tracks, which is key for this film. The rear channels are rarely used, but the low end sounds nice.
There is also an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, and English and Spanish Subtitles.
THE BONUS FEATURES
You won't find much supplemental material on the About Schmidt DVD. The most important of the three items you'll find are the nine deleted scenes, all presented in anamorphic widescreen. Payne delivers a text introduction for each that describes why he chose to leave the scenes on the cutting room floor. Although the scenes are entertaining and funny, I can't disagree with Payne's decision to cut them.
Also on tap are five short films devoted to the Woodmen Tower. Using footage to be used for the opening credits of the film, Payne's assistant editors created some interesting pieces of their own. Although the replay value of these shorts is pretty insignificant, it is appealing to see how the same footage can be edited differently to create five completely different moods. Although not presented in anamorphic widescreen (perhaps due to one of the shorts featuring several seconds in full frame), Payne does offer a text introduction to the group of shorts.
Lastly, you'll find the film's theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 sound.
About Schmidt is as real as they come. Luckily, the otherwise morose story is told with enough humor that the sadness is more than bearable—it's actually entertaining and funny. Although not for everyone, About Schmidt will please those who are able to see themselves in a character struggling with an unfulfilling life, and who can laugh at what they see. Despite the lack of eye-popping special features, fans of the film will definitely want to pick up this disc, while others should at least give it a shot with their rental dollars.