Friday, March 17, 2006

The one false note in 'About Schmidt'

by Professor Wagstaff
One of the best films I’ve seen at the cinema in recent years is ‘About Schmidt’. Warren Schmidt’s monologue at the very end of the film is very moving and a superb culmination of what the film is about.

But ‘About Schmidt’ always had one flaw that bothered me – it’s not a particularly glaring one but it was an irritating one as it was so jarring compared with the rest of the film and was easily avoidable.

It’s the concept of Warren’s letters to his foster child Ndugu. I just couldn’t accept that a character like Warren would not be aware of the absurdity of writing such sophisticated, complex letters about such adult aspects of his life to a 6 year-old African child.

Not only that, but it’s the bizarre tone of the letters where he treats Ndgku as if he were writing to an American teenager about to head out to college ( Schmidt writes "I highly recommend that you pledge a fraternity when you go to college") almost seem like they belong in a low-brow comedy where the bizarre absurdity of the letters is supposedly funny (wouldn't he have worked out before the Nun wrote to him at the end that Ndgku couldn't speak English?). I guess that’s what Payne/Taylor were aiming for was to illustrate Schmidt’s self-absorption and condescenion ("You probably can't wait to run and cash this check and get yourself something to eat") but it isn’t convincing at all – he may be a bland, complacent character he’s not a village idiot.

It always been a jarring note on what was otherwise a first-class film - it would've worked better if Warren had written a diary. I really seen any critics point out this issue so maybe I've missing something. What do others think?

15 Comments:

Blogger Nick said...

Maybe we should warn people for spoilers?

The ending to About Schmidt left me weepy. Good weepy, not bad weepy.

I felt like the point of those letters, indeed of the very film, were that they were written more to Schmidt himself than the African kid.

Schmidt is a shit, a boring shit, who has lived for himself. Not that this makes him unsympathetic, quite the opposite. When his wife dies he realizes that something has been missing from his life. He concludes that his life has been boring and pointless.

When Schmidt decided to visit his daughter, though he claims it's to help his daughter out of the mistake he made early in his, I saw it as more of a selfish reason. He needed someone to rely on him, to do something worthwhile out of what was left of his (to him, and maybe to most people) pointless life.

I think, when Schmidt sees that doing that - to him - almost pointless little thing for a kid he's never met, something he did out of mostly selfish reasons, changed that boys life, he realizes what his mistake has been all along, and that it might be too late to do a lot about it.

3/17/2006 04:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahoy tharr. I have nothing to say.

3/17/2006 05:32:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

But you just did.

3/17/2006 05:36:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I agree with Nick. Schmidt has no one else to talk to, so he has chosen the child as his outlet, perhaps because he knows the child won't understand his letters. He perhaps feels a twinge of embarrassment when he realizes a nun has been reading them.

3/17/2006 07:02:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I don't think mere embarrassment is what made him cry there.

And if he had been writing a diary instead, the point that is made with that ending would have been lost.

3/17/2006 07:17:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Not saying that's what made him cry, but when he starts reading the letter from the nun, I got the sense that Schmidt felt a little embarrassed. That feeling is quickly replaced, though, by his emotions.

3/17/2006 07:32:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Ah, all right.

3/17/2006 07:37:00 AM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

I missed the boat on About Schmidt. I read all the raves, rented it, and hated it. I really kept searching and searching for a redeeming quality, but was left unmoved and empty.
I know this isn't consensus, but man, I just didn't get (and couldn't get) into this movie. Even giving chairty laughs at a few parts didn't help. It was essentially too slow-moving and boring for me (this is from someone who thinks Meet Joe Black moved at just the right pace) and I really tried to look for something under the surface but was left wanting....

3/17/2006 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I understand perfectly what you mean about the letters. But to me, the whole movie was like that. I didn't hate it, but it left me cold.

I felt the same way about Sideways.

3/17/2006 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I liked but did nove About Schmidt, gave it a B-. But I loved certain parts, such as the end and Schmidt's speech at the wedding, which made me think of Broadway Danny Rose's credo: "Acceptance, forgiveness, love."

Sideways was my favorite film of 2004, and Election was my favorite of 1999. Payne and Taylor are among a handful of filmmakers that I eagerly anticipate their next project.

3/17/2006 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Colin said...

I'll join in on the "underwhelmed by Payne" bandwagon.

I remember hearing a lot of buzz about "Citizen Ruth," but then seeing it and being very disappointed. It felt condescending and not very insightful.

"Election" was brilliant and, in my mind, Payne's only really great film.

I also was left cold by "About Schmidt." It was okay, but I just didn't feel that it was odd or deep enough to have the dramatic or comedic effect that was intended. I actually thought that the actors in it were great, but there was something about the writing and direction that just stunted it.

"Sideways" was better, but again, there was something impenetrable about it. The actors were top notch, but again, there's just something about Payne's direction that keeps me at a distance.

Obviously, most people disagree with me on this, and there's not really something specific I can identify about Payne's films that I dislike. It's weird.

3/17/2006 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

I've loved all of Payne's films. I didn't really pick at the Ndgku storyline, those letters were my favorite jokes in the movie. I've never had a problem with breaking the believability factor if the results are funny.

My favorite Payne theme is hilarious, uncomfortable sexuality. In Election you have those awful sex scenes between Broderick and his wife. In About Schmidt there was the Kathy Bates nude scene. Sideways had two great ones; Hayden Church getting caught with his pants down and the scene near the end with "Mr. Floppy."

3/17/2006 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

Checking the IMDB, I see that Payne's next project is a film called Nebraska (there's a shock) but it is not written by Jim Taylor, and doesn't seem to be based on a book. It's by a writer named Bob Nelson. No cast listed yet, but is sounds like another road picture, as a son is driving his father from Montana to Nebraska to claim lottery winnings.

3/17/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger Professor Wagstaff said...

'Election' I think is an even better film then 'About Schmidt'. It's really holds up well on repeat viewings, and as an observation on aspects of American society is even better then 'About Schmidt' was.

I haven't seen 'Sideways' or 'Citizen Ruth' yet.

By the way, I just saw on the IMDB site that Payne and Taylor co-wrote the third Jurassic Park film. Has anyone seen it and if so, is there any sign in the film that it's written by them?

3/19/2006 01:18:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I did see JP3. It was better than JP2, for what's it's worth (extremely little).

But to answer your question ... I don't remember any particular Payne/Taylor influence. Except for all the naked fat people.

3/19/2006 10:59:00 AM  

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