Monday, May 28, 2012

A Little Something

About Schmidt is a 2002 Alexander Payne movie in which Jack Nicholson is a completely anonymous retiree surrounded by completely anonymous furniture, cars, people, feelings, and landscapes.  The monotone allows Nicholson to branch out somehow, to get sentimental without losing the banality and absurdity of his conquest.  The movie is rooted in letters he writes to an "adopted" African boy he found through a TV infomercial voiced by Angela Lansbury.  In any other movie, those letters would come off as horrible gimmicks, ways for Nicholson's Nebraska retiree to show his "humanity," or worse ways to satirize his lameness.  Payne does both at the same time.  Satire and sentiment blend into an approximation of looking without judging, feeling what somebody else feels while also maintaining a sane distance so you can't turn Schmidt into a symbol.  He's just Schmidt.  And his sad RV journey to his daughter's Denver wedding is just a trip on an interstate.  When he gets there, he desperately wants to stop the marriage, as his future son-in-law (hilariously portrayed by Delbert Mulroney) is a total a-hole.  The son-in-law's mom is a real winner too.  Kathy Bates plays her with an effortless aplomb -- a washed-out, New-Agey matron in hippie skirts, asking Schmidt what kind of a sex life he has.  Hope Davis is the daughter, and she has the mean, hard face of someone who has pushed feelings down so far inside that they have rooted to the ground.  She's stuck, but she can't say that aloud.  The major triumph of the film, the penultimate moment, isn't really dramatized through the African orphan letters, as much as at Schmidt's daughter's wedding reception.  When he's asked to say a little something about the couple, Schmidt gets up, is given the microphone, and he bites the bullet:  he blesses their union.  It's a moment of self sacrifice, painful and sad, but also somehow more telling than the words he sends to an anonymous African boy.  After the speech, Schmidt goes to the bathrooms and pees.  The look on his face as he urinates is heart-breaking.  He had to do what he just did, lie and smile, even though he feels it is the biggest failure of his life.  That's the wisdom nestled inside this remarkable sad and sweet film:  you have to lie sometimes just to be able to be in the lives of the people you love.