CANNES 2002 REVIEW: Social Critics or Crowd Pleasers?; Payne and Taylor Return With "About Schmidt"
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
(indieWIRE/05.23.02) -- With their pitch-dark comedies "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor emerged as premiere satirists of the American scene --acute in their social observations, shrewd in their psychological instincts, and unafraid to take on touchy political issues like abortion rights and the manipulative power games our schools teach us to call democracy.
"About Schmidt" heads in similar directions, again using the adventures of a troubled protagonist to pry open seemingly innocent chunks of Americana that prove surprisingly bitter and bruising. But this time the filmmakers aim at a broader commercial audience than they've reached before, and the compromises they make don't always ring true. The result is more a crowd-friendly Jack Nicholson vehicle than a forward step for the Payne-Taylor team. Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a white-collar drone who has peddled policies for an Omaha insurance company as long as he can remember. He retires at 66, ready to hit the road with his tedious wife in a cavernous motor home. The first stop is their daughter's wedding, which he's resigned himself to despite his distaste for the schlubby waterbed salesman she's marrying. But his wife drops dead before they get out of the door, and grief hits him harder than he would have expected, given the fact that he's been sick of her for years.
Killing a few days before the wedding trip to Denver, he revisits old haunts that have changed the way old haunts invariably do -- the house where he was born is now a tire store, the students at his alma mater find him an irrelevant bore, and so on. Eventually he arrives at the home of his future in-laws, where further indignities await, from an oversexed mother-of-the-groom to a waterbed that plays havoc with his aging bones.
His odyssey culminates at the wedding reception, where he wrestles with an overwhelming temptation to tell the assembled friends, relatives, and guests what a bunch of worthless idiots they are -- and to face his dawning realization that he's cut from the same dismal, depressing cloth. The best moments of "About Schmidt" take place during Warren's solitary journey. Moodily photographed by James Glennon, these sequences suggest that Schmidt's entire life is as flat and empty as the Midwestern plains stretching monotonously into the distance.
Also inspired is the film's voiceover narration, gleaned from letters Warren writes to a starving Tanzanian orphan he's "adopted" by sending $22 checks to a TV charity. He pours out his soul to his six-year-old pen pal -- who's illiterate, by the way -- and generates some of the movie's funniest material in the process. Sample: "I'll stop now, Ndugu, because you probably want to cash that check and get yourself a bite to eat