Unlike drama, unlike fiction, the movies don’t do failure very well. They are essentially a heroic medium, like tragedy or epic poetry, in which even defeat must be made to seem an achievement. Indeed, it is perhaps the only achievement fully worthy the artist’s attention. Just think of Hector or Oedipus or Beowulf or Roland or King Lear. I think Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth) understands this in About Schmidt, the movie he directs from a screenplay he developed, along with Jim Taylor, from a novel by Louis Begley, but he does not always succeed in skirting the fatal tendency to portray his Hector as pathetic, rather than heroic, as Willie Loman rather than Marshall Will Kane.
At least he keeps Jack Nicholson from yielding to his fatal temptation, which is overacting. With Payne’s snaffle between his teeth and blinders firmly fastened down, Nicholson turns in what may be the finest performance of his career as Warren Schmidt, a retired insurance man from Omaha — Mr Payne’s home town, whither the action has been transplanted from Long Island. His Lomanish quality at times almost suggests self-pity, as when he tells us in voiceover of how oppressive he finds the presence of his wife Helen (June Squibb) — “Who is this old woman living in my house? Everything she does irritates me” — until she dies and he suddenly realizes how much she meant to him. He tells us of his having wanted to be somebody, “not like Henry Ford or Walt Disney but someone semi-important,” but settling for the security of the insurance company job.
Fortunately, this kind of set-up stuff, and a more authentic and interesting voice emerges as he pours out his life story in letters to a six-year-old child, Ndugu, in Africa whom he has “sponsored,” for a trifling sum each month, in response to a television advertisement. As a means of defusing the dangerous self-indulgence of voiceover narration, this is hard to beat. It introduces a note of whimsey and self-deprecation, since Ndugu must be utterly mystified by 90 per cent of what his benefactor has to tell him, but it also serves as a constant reminder of the latter’s bumbling good intentions.
After his wife’s death, Schmidt proposes to go to Denver to stay with his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), for a while before her wedding to a dim-witted waterbed salesman called Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney). But she puts him off, obviously wanting no part of him in close proximity, and he embarks instead on a mock-heroic quest — which becomes a voyage of self-discovery, as heroic and mock-heroic quests alike almost invariably do in the movies — in the behemoth of a Winnebago his late wife had made him buy. But Warren has by now reached the age at which there is not a lot left to discover. He travels to his birthplace, now a tire store, and his old fraternity at the University of Kansas, his alma mater. No one is interested in anything he has to say. He meets a younger couple who seem friendly and sympathetic, but he ends up making an embarrassing pass at the wife and has to make a quick getaway.
It is just because there is no obvious moment of divine revelation or self-knowledge, no catastrophic loss or wise teacher or life-changing precept to effect the transformation, that we are persuaded when he writes, after a bit of soul-searching while observing the stars from the top of his recreational vehicle one night: “And so Ndugu, after my night in the wilderness, I awoke like a man transformed.” Now, he says, he knows what he has to do: to stop his daughter’s wedding to the “nincompoop” Randall. “And nothing,” he says, “is going to stop me.” At last his quest has an object.
But things do stop him. When he arrives at the home of the appalling Randall’s even more appalling mother (Kathy Bates), he has to fight her off. Jeannie takes his intervention in ill part, hitting the ceiling when he pleads with her: “You’re making a big mistake; don’t marry this guy” — and appealing to her: “Just look at these people.” Most embarrassing of all, Randall is effusive in his admiration of him. Like Nicholson himself under Payne’s firm directorial hand, his character has to suck it up. The voyage of self-discovery with all that it suggests of emotional (and other forms of) liberation finally leaves him untouched. He still has to suck it up as he has been sucking it up all his life.
What is most impressive about the film, I think, is that this is not seen as a tragedy. It is too ordinary for that. Warren’s speech at the wedding reception is truly a great cinematic moment — a celebration of (gasp) emotional continence, of politeness, of a refusal to make a fuss — and is effective partly because our expectations, both of Jack Nicholson and of the long-running movie romance with personal authenticity, go entirely the other way. Nicholson’s ability to convey that sense of personal authenticity is what made him a star. But Payne crosses us up, he doesn’t allow us the easy satisfaction of a hero whose noisy insistence on his own way of looking at things or doing things produces an inevitable but implausible triumph for him. This guy knows better, but he also knows that his knowledge is not wanted or needed, and accepting that with a good grace is one of the hardest things we ever have to do, and the hardest thing of all for a movie.
There are a few problems with the film. First, we don’t see why relations between Warren and Jeannie are so strained. At one point when she reproaches him with not being involved in her life until he wants to persuade her to dump Randall, and also in buying a cheap casket for her mother, reasons are hinted at, but the matter isn’t investigated any further. Second, why does Jeannie want to marry Randall? Warren states what is the obvious when he tells her that she is way out of his league, but she doesn’t seem to want to know. What sad history of hers makes it worth settling for him?
Finally, we have to wonder why this man appears to have no friends, and pours his heart out to a six year old child in Tanzania. It is in many ways a charming idea for a movie, but it leaves us unsatisfied. How has this isolation happened? The part that is meant to be inspiring, where Ndugu draws him a picture in thanks for his $22 a month contribution and a tear rolls down his cheek as he thinks that here, at least, is something he has accomplished, some place in the world where he has made a difference, is actually rather depressing. After 66 years all he has to show for his life is the thanks of a six year old he has never met for a contribution that is a ridiculously small part of himself? What happened to the rest of him? Is it all, as he suspects before Ndugu’s picture arrives, just a waste?
It sort of looks as if that is what Payne is telling us. But he is also telling us that it is an accomplishment just to be able to take what life has to dish out to us.