Saturday, January 15, 2005

About Schmidt (DVD)

(Dir Alexander Payne, with Jack Nicholson (and no-one else really, as his character is so dominant))

This is a troubling film. I really don't know why it was made, because it is so far removed from Louis Begley's book. The only three points of contact between the two is that there is an old man who retires, his wife dies shortly thereafter and he has problems getting on with his daughter (Hope Davis). Even the name is changed: in the book, he is called Schmidt throughout whereas he goes by his first name, Warren, in the movie.

In the book, Schmidt is a fairly formidable lawyer, the kind of fellow Louis Auchnicloss wrote about. His daughter has chosen to marry a lawyer from within her dad's firm, which is distasteful to him on two levels: the fellow is a Jew and is the next generation, someone who will usurp his place in the hierarchy. So, this opens up plenty of scope for self-recognition and questioning in the book: is Scmidt an anti-semite? But his best friend is a Jew! Is he really feared and disliked by all of his colleagues? What of his relationship with his daughter? Is there a struggle between them, in which he struggles to maintain his assets from her clutches and indeed struggles to maintain any credibility in her eyes? The movie strips away all of these nuances and oversimplifies it, by having the daughter getting hooked up with a no-hoper (Dermott Mulroney).

It also has him running away from everything by taking off in a stonking big motorhome and then having a final showdown/conciliation with his daughter and her new inlaws. In the book, he stays in his big house and reflects on his relationship with his late wife (which was characterised by her distaste for physical contact) and the one affair he had . Unbelievably, he then has an affair with a beautiful latino waitress in his local diner, who has a loser boyfriend. Then, when he takes a fall, he finds himself dependent upon that "loser" boyfriend who has taken over as general handyman and man of all sorts around the house.

That would have made for an interesting movie, one which it would not have been impossible to make. Instead, we get this. I know others have rated it highly. I think the book got in the way for me. I do agree with them about the quality of Nicholson's performance, and the fact that we are so used to seeing him in powerful roles adds an extra dimension to see him playing such a lost character.


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