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About Schmidt

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
About Schmidt
from Film Forum, 01/02/03

Writer/director Alexander Payne's About Schmidt is among a handful of films predicted to compete in a close Oscar race this year. This is primarily due to the performance of Jack Nicholson, who plays a retiree coping with the realization that his life has been wasted and trying to salvage what is left of the time he has.

Some critics describe Schmidt as uplifting and inspirational. Indeed, moviegoers around me at the theatre dabbed at their eyes and sighed deeply at its various emotional peaks. But other critics argue are that the film undercuts the usual sentimental epiphanies with an undertow of negativism and cynicism. That is closer to my experience of the film. Schmidt seems to fail at every attempt to connect with others. His climactic speech at his daughter's wedding is well intended, but it is also dishonest. What seems at first to be a breakthrough in the final scenes could also be interpreted as a breakdown, a realization of isolation and failure to communicate. Thus, while Schmidt is clearly crafted by an artist, I found it to be bleak, frustrating, discouraging, and even confused.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls it "wonderfully moving. The film locates genuine human emotion and the cast delivers the goods in sharply drawn portrayals. But it is overwhelmingly Nicholson's artistry that drives the film from a simple story of an Everyman at a crossroads to an affecting portrait of grief and self-discovery."

Doug Cummings (Chiaroscuro) found it inspiring. "It's to Payne's credit that he never inserts the sort of easy sentimental scene of tearful reconciliation which plagues other family dramas. As in real life, these clumsy characters must learn to embrace unfamiliar juxtapositions and compromise if they hope to remain in relationship. And the final image is one of tremendous, unexpected uplift."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) takes a starkly different stance: "About Schmidt is a Christian movie with a Lutheran flavor. The movie is so pre-evangelistically Christian that it should have been made to be accessible to all ages. About Schmidt is the best movie ever made about being 'born again.'"

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) disagrees: "I'm not sure the hurrahs being flung at the film are completely earned. I found [Payne's portrait of the Midwest] a little too harsh, a little bit smug. Payne is no longer laughing with us, he's laughing at us. Your view of the movie will probably depend on whether the final, cathartic shot is earned or just an illegitimate attempt to bring some emotion to an otherwise empty landscape."

Mainstream critics are similarly divided. Stephen Holden (The New York Times) says, "Nicholson brings to his role … a sorrowful awareness of human complexity whose emotional depth matches anything he has done in the movies before." But Charles Taylor (, while praising Nicholson, attacks the film itself: "How can critics fall for this movie's rank sentimentality? How can they fail to notice its hypocrisy? Payne's specialty, only three movies into his career, has become making the audience feel superior to his characters. How can critics laud About Schmidt with phrases like 'profoundly moving' without noticing that the sense of humanity they claim the movie celebrates doesn't extend to 95 percent of the people on-screen?"

Mike LaSalle (San Fransisco Chronicle) focuses on the film's spiritual emptiness: "The movie … dares to say it's all a lie, that the truisms that movies and mass culture live by are reassuring myths but lead nowhere. Here, old age is a time not of insight but of confusion. Love doesn't grow but grows stale, evolving into a vague contempt. Having a child is no comfort, and even taking off down the road—the great American standby—offers nothing in the way of self-discovery. It's all empty. About Schmidt is a spiritually lost film about a man who's spiritually lost."

from Film Forum, 01/30/03

Jeremy Lott (RazorMouth) offers a review of About Schmidt: "Despite the [film's] reflection on the miserable and downcast and the movie's weighty topic, all in all, the film is quite funny.