US, 2002, 126 minutes, Colour
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Kathy Bates, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman.
Directed by Alexander Payne
In his satirical high school comedy, Election, with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, director, Alexander Payne, showed a sensitive and incisive talent for the foibles of human nature. Now, he moves to retirement and old age with an even stronger sensitivity.
Jack Nicholson, acting slightly over his real age, gives one of his best and most restrained, even understated, performances, bringing to life a Nebraska insurance actuary who finds himself on the verge of retiring and who has to cope with not being needed, with vast amounts of time, with the death of his wife and the impending marriage of his daughter to a man he labels (when polite) a nincompoop. With a wealth of intimate detail, Payne and Nicholson give us a portrait of an ordinary Everyman who is forced to revisit his life, reassess his judgments on people, learn forgiveness and some tolerance as he asks himself the question whether his life has made any difference to anyone.
Hope Davis as his daughter brings an edge of melancholic realism to her role (as she did in a similar vein in Hearts of Atlantis). An almost unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney plays Randall as less than a nincompoop than Schmidt would admit, but still not the brightest. Kathy Bates again shows her versatility as Mulroney's free-spirited and surprisingly uninhibited mother.
The device of having Warren pour out his soul in letters to the six-year old Tanzanian child he is sponsoring is dramatically risky. Nicholson, however, avoids all sentimentality as he speaks the letters aloud. In fact, they are the device whereby we really learn the truth about Schmidt.
Funny, with touches of caricature, sad, and a moving picture of an uneventful life.
1. The impact of the film? Its themes? Jack Nicholson's presence, his interpretation of Warren Schmidt? The writing of Alexander Payne (in the light of his other films)? A young writer, with insight into the male crisis in retirement, into family, his own background as coming from Nebraska?
2. The settings, the Midwest, the insurance building? Home? The open road of the Midwest, the caravan parks, schools, universities? Omaha? The reality of the Midwest and the travelling to Denver? Fields, rivers, old towns, museums? The site of the old house where the Schmidts lived? The importance of the musical score, the songs, the music of Eric Satie?
3. Jack Nicholson's presence, performance, Oscar nomination? His under-playing? Older than his age?
4. The title, Warren Schmidt as an America Everyman, seeing his everyday life? The significance of his life, the magazines with his early ambitions and hopes, the reality of his career, the modest achievement? His going back to his house (and its being a takeaway place and the reaction of the man behind the counter)? His memories of his growing up, school, university, walking the corridors, the dining room and discussions with the students? His work, a vice-president, forty-two years married to his wife, the alienation from his daughter? Facing his retirement, the dinner, the aftermath? An ordinary life?
5. The opening of the film, Schmidt sitting in his office, waiting for five o'clock, retiring, the dinner, the speeches, the goodwill towards him, his own reaction, his friendship with Ray, Ray's speech, the young executive taking over, his later visit to the young executive and not being able to contribute? His wife and her support? Going into the bar for a drink? His phoning Jeannie, the estrangement, his asking after Randall - and the indications of his dislike of him?
6. His relationship with his wife, the voice-over and the various irritations, the restaurant, the forty-two years, talking things over, her bossy attitude, the breakfast in the caravan - and glimpses of the future? His going out, coming home and finding her dead? The funeral, the buying of the coffin? Jeannie and her arrival, her attack on her father for his meanness? The aftermath, Randall and his advice on going into a pyramid scheme? Jeannie going back and the distance growing between them?
7. The routines of retirement, going to sleep, getting up, the attempt to go to the office, archives? Having the ice cream, watching the TV? Angela Lansbury and the advertisement for giving money to support an African child?
8. The character of Nduku, his age, never being seen, living in Tanzania? Schmidt and his decision to pay, starting to write the letters, opening his heart to Nduku, Nduku as a kind of distant father confessor? The tone of the letters, humour, telling his life story, explaining his feelings, especially about Helen, Jeannie and Randall? The punctuation? The cheque, talking in an adult way to Nduku, asking his advice? The device throughout the whole film? What difference did the talking to Nduku make for Warren? Receiving the drawing, receiving the letter from the nun, her appreciation of what he had done for Nduku - and his weeping?
9. His finding Ray and Helen's letters, accosting Ray, the event happening twenty-five to thirty years earlier, his anger, Ray and his apologies? The later thinking it over and forgiving him?
10. Schmidt going on the road, driving the van, going to his past home, the university, going to the caravan park? The dinner, the talk of the couple, the admiration of the van, his advance towards the woman? Her horrified reaction and his having to hurry away?
11. The decision to go to the wedding, the phone calls, Jeannie not wanting him there? His clear opinion of Randall? Jeannie and her reaction, wanting to marry, resenting his interference when he had neglected her?
12. The arrival in Denver, the encounter with Roberta, her manner, the drink, her relationship with Larry, insulting him? Her marriages, her talk about sex, her going into the spa with him and his reaction? The family around the table, the eccentricities, Jeannie feeling at home? Randall and his earnestness, the failure of the pyramid scheme? Roberta and her controlling the table? Warren, his reactions, silence? The waterbed, his back going out? In the spa, embarrassed with Roberta naked? Jeannie and her anger about his not being well? His being given the drugs, the meal, the reaction of the drugs and his being in a kind of stupor?
13. The wedding, his being present, his trying to help with some of the preparations? The dinner, Larry and his speeches, with Roberta?
14. The preparation for his speech, what he said, how he said it? Holding himself in? His love for Jeannie yet his thinking of Randall as a nincompoop?
15. His going home, his future, the experience of the wedding, everything that he was sure of falling away: job, daily routines, marriage, family? The final letter from Nduku and his having to face a future in retirement?
16. A humane film, a sympathetic portrait of an ageing man, strengths and weaknesses, the realities of ordinary living, having to cope, having to transcend them?