About Schmidt
dir. Alexander Payne
Opens Fri Dec 20 at various theaters.

I want to begin this way: About Schmidt is about shit; meaning nothing, or better yet, fuck-all--which is the greatest expression of nothingness we have in the English language. But instead I will start with this: If American Beauty was structured by blockish Freudian concepts, then About Schmidt is structured by blockish Sartre/Camus-like concepts. But About Schmidt is, overall, an entertaining film, whereas American Beauty was dull and lazy.

About Schmidt, however, is not as good as Payne's previous film, Election, because existentialism is not as interesting as the moral and ethical issues Election examines. Furthermore, the comedy in Election was successfully married to the ideas that propelled its narrative, whereas About Schmidt's propelling ideas are weak, and comedy alone sustains the entire picture.

About Schmidt stars an exhausted Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt, an Omaha actuary facing the nothingness of retirement. At the end of his last day at the insurance agency, all of Schmidt's lifework is packed into blank boxes, the office is empty, and he has nowhere to go. When he awakes the following morning next to his wife, who bores him immensely, he finds himself at the top of the slope of slow time that leads down to an ordinary death.

The film's existential symbolism begins with Schmidt writing, shortly after entering retirement, a very personal letter to an African boy named Ndugu. Inspired by one of those often ignored commercials that plead for contributions to assist homeless Third World children, Schmidt decides to sponsor Ndugu with a small donation of $22 a month. The nothingness of his life is then transmitted to the nothingness of Africa. The next symbol occurs when Schmidt revisits his former workplace and finds that the boxes containing his lifework have been dumped in the garbage. This is soon followed by a death--Mrs. Schmidt suddenly expires next to, of course, a vacuum cleaner.

After his wife's death, he attempts but fails to reconnect with his daughter (Hope Davis), whose fiancé's stupidity and indifference represent another form of nothingness. Before journeying to their wedding in Denver, he takes a quick trip around the culturally desolate Midwest in a massive Winnebago. Schmidt revisits his life: where he was born (a house demolished many years before and replaced by a tire store), where he went to college, and other places that present him with more gusts of American nothingness.

As I said earlier, comedy sustains the film, especially when it gets slapstickish--Nicholson trying to find sleep on a waterbed is hilarious. Nicholson also makes us laugh when he says at the opening of his letters/confessions to the African boy: "Dear Ndugu." But, seriously, Alexander Payne should not be so ambitious again. He should return to the manageable themes--middle-class morality and ethics--he so masterfully realized in Election.

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