ABOUT SCHMIDT || 2002, USA || Comedy || Directed by – Alexander Payne / Written by – Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (based on the novel About Schmidt by Louis Begley) / Produced by – Bill Badalato, Michael Besman, Harry Gittes, Rachel Horovitz / Music by – Rolfe Kent / Cinematography by – James Glennon / Editing by – Kevin Tent / Production Design by – Jane Ann Stewart / Starring – Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis / Running time: 125 mins.
Filmmaker Alexander Payne makes films that could fit both the categories of comedy and drama. The adjective that describes all of them, more or less, best is “melancholic.” Indeed, while none are laugh out loud funny or conventionally dramatic in a cinematic sense, there is always a sense of pensiveness about them that reflects the emotional state of its leading characters.
In the case of About Schmidt, that character is an older male who is practically forced into retirement. Thus, he finds himself having to come to terms with his ageing. Perhaps sensing his crisis, he sets off on the road to attend the wedding of his estranged daughter.
The road movie format is actually one favored by Payne, as well as other directors. The monotony of driving echoes the pensive atmosphere of Schmidt’s movies. This is a structure that he would later use in his 2013 work Nebraska. The main difference between the two movies – besides the colouration – is that About Schmidt is more character-centric, accentuating his loneliness.
Some may argue that the passivity of the leading character works against the energy of the film. Yet, that would missing the point of Payne’s ambition. This is not a film that aims to mesmerize; the typical Alexander Payne road movie is not about spectacle: on the contrary, it embraces the monotony of the journey, and its resulting intimacy. The viewer too is not originally meant to worry about the plot in any conventional means because singular events could even be a distraction. In fact, the main story of About Schmidt is to be found in the face of Jack Nicholson.
That is why there is so much attention given to silences. Nicholson repays the director’s attention with a naturalistic presence. The camera, on the other hand, keeps its gaze on him, even at his most intimate moments. The look in his eyes, whether pensive, confused, tired, lost, sad, or even stoned, is very real – it is the driving force of the movie, the element that anticipates the moods of every single scene. – 4/5