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Moriarty Basks In The Glow Of ABOUT SCHMIDT!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

I ran a couple of reviews of ABOUT SCHMIDT together last week. One was very negative, written with the sole intent of calling the film names, and the other was pretty much a rave. New Line saw the reviews and called to invite me to see the film for myself. They sounded a little freaked by the negative review, but I told them I ran it because the only negative reviews I’ve read seem to be by people who have really freakin’ terrible taste in film. People who are sensation junkies without attention span. The same kind of people who dismiss JACKIE BROWN because it didn’t deliver the same hypodermic-to-the-heart as PULP FICTION. I ran that review as an example of the kind of person who probably isn’t game for the latest offering from the same creative team as ELECTION and CITIZEN RUTH.

Personally, I love ELECTION. I think it’s another one of ‘99’s quiet masterpieces. Alexander Payne is definitely a member of the Class of ’99, along with David Fincher and Brad Bird and Spike Jonze and David O. Russell, guys who may or may not have made other films, but who made defining films in ’99, films that helped make it the single best year in recent memory. For many of the people on that list, including Jonze, whose ADAPTATION I reviewed Friday, this is the first year where they’ve got new work out there, where they either live up to their promise or buckle under the pressure. ELECTION is a great little character piece, and the performances by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon were bliss, among their very best. Even Chris Klein seemed promising with Payne directing him. It represented a real step forward after CITIZEN RUTH, which is a very good satire, but which plays a bit broad for us to ever really invest in the characters. It’s a film filled with types instead of people, but it works because Payne and Jim Taylor, his writing partner, have a wicked sense of satire that plays dark, but never so dark that it becomes uncomfortable. These guys have too much restraint and class to ever deliver a YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS style plunge into extremism. Even when they shock (as in the moment in ELECTION where a teacher takes glee in saying, “Her pussy was so wet”), they also find the belly laugh and the truth.

And now, with ABOUT SCHMIDT, Payne and Taylor have taken another giant step forward with a mature, adult piece of work that takes a rare and unvarnished look at life as it is, a film that managed to ably defy any attempt to label it either comedy or drama. This is a small story about muted epiphanies, but it’s in those tiny details that Payne and Taylor find painful truth and quiet power.

I’ve lived outside of major cities more of my life than I’ve lived in major cities. I’ve lived in Tennessee, Texas, and Florida at various times. I usually hate the way rural life, or even average American suburban life, is portrayed in films, especially once you get movie stars mixed up in things. No matter how skillfully made ERIN BROKOVICH was, did you ever for even a second lose sight of the fact that you were watching Julia Roberts done up “trashy”? Isn’t that part of what sold the film? There’s almost always this smarmy sense of playing “dress-up,” a sort of joy in slumming it. It’s more the fault of the directors than the actors, since it’s their job to create a space where they can provoke some kind of real or honest reaction out of their cast. And there used to be directors who were really good at this. Look at the way Spielberg portrayed the near-nuclear chaos of family life in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS or E.T., or the obvious affection towards pretty much everyone in Jonathan Demme’s HANDLE WITH CARE, or the world in which Scorsese set ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Alexander Payne has said, “American life is atypical in Los Angeles and New York. There’s a huge continent in between.” He’s right, of course, and he’s rapidly claiming Omaha as his own particular cinematic turf. By focusing on such a specific mileau, he’s getting better and better at capturing the particular world with the help of his regular collaborators like director of photography James Glennon or production designer Jane Ann Stewart or Wendy Chuck, whose costume design borders on mad genius. This is the sort of cutting observational satire practiced by guys like Hal Ashby or Robert Altman in his best moments. Oe of the reasons so many of those great films from the ‘70s still resonate is because they said timeless things, universal things that still seem fresh and potent today. I’m willing to bet that ABOUT SCHMIDT is going to endure in the same way, an important landmark in what is sure to be a long and significant career.

Actually, it’s also a landmark in a career that is already long and significant. It’s strange seeing Jack Nicholson do something that redefines him yet again at this point in his career. None of his peers seem capable of this kind of courage or range. Dustin Hoffman was solid in MOONLIGHT MILE earlier this year, but it’s been a long time since he challenged himself or our expectations. It looks like Warren Beatty was going to shake things up when he flirted with starring in KILL BILL, but he backed out. De Niro seems to have become hopelessly addicted to self-parody. Yes... Bob... you’re funny. We all get it now. And Pacino, even in his best work these days, is a collection of mannerisms, and the fun of being a fan of his work is seeing him pull out his greatest hits. “Hooo-ah!” indeed.

Only Nicholson seems to push himself with any real consistency. He was quite affecting in last year’s underseen THE PLEDGE, and this time out, he’s pushed himself someplace new. For the first time, Nicholson’s playing a character whose fire has completely and finally gone out. The easy Hollywood version of this film would be about a guy who retires and then suffers a few setbacks, only to discover a new love of life as a hellraising rebel in a Winnebago, a fable to make Baby Boomers feel better about the encroach of age. This isn’t that easy version, though. This isn’t a story told to placate or to soothe. This is unflinching, an uninvited x-ray, and it may leave many viewers feeling flayed.

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) has been an insurance adjuster his entire adult life. He’s been married to the same woman, Helen (June Squibb), the entire time. He’s raised a daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), and now she’s getting ready for her wedding to Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney). It’s a time of change for the Schmidts. You see... Warren is retiring. That’s the first thing we see. Nicholson at his desk, watching the clock count down the last seconds of his professional life, waiting for 5:00 exactly. He’s packed, ready to go. The first thing that struck me about him, physically, was his hair, a remarkable architectural construction consisting of an interwoven comb over with a flip... really. Beyond words. It’s majestic. 5:00 comes, Warren stands up and leaves, and that’s it. It’s over. No more job. No more 9 to 5. His life is his own again.

Problem is, Warren doesn’t know what to do with it. He doesn’t have the slightest notion. Sure, Helen’s got a few ideas. She has pushed Warren to buy a giant Winnebago, but he doesn’t seem particularly interested in even sitting in it, much less taking trips in it. He watches TV without seeing anything. He just absorbs the noise dipassionately until something breaks through that fog, an ad, a commercial for Childreach, one of those programs where you “adopt” a child “for as little as 72 cents a day!” Warren sits there, watching this commercial, and finally, at some level, something in him stirs. He calls away. He gets the information packet. He fills it out, and he officially becomes a foster parent to Ndugu, a little African boy. Warren takes this opportunity to write letters to Ndugu, and it is these letters which becomes the framework for the picture. It’s a simple device, but quite beautiful when it pays off. And it allows Warren to give voice to all those thoughts that he could never say to the people around him because he’s forgotten how. Somehow, he opens up for this boy that he sees only in a single photograph, and for those moments when he’s writing his letters, Warren actually sees the world around him.

Tragedy strikes, and Warren’s world falls apart, but even so, it’s like it doesn’t really penetrate. He just rolls on, stunned, but still not quite feeling. He takes his Winnebago to visit Jeannie in the last few days before her wedding, and he meets Randall’s mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), her ex-husband Larry (Howard Hesseman), and their other son Duncan (Mark Venhuizen), who seems as blissfully dense as Mike Shank from AMERICAN MOVIE. Everything in Warren recoils from this immersion in the world that his daughter has chosen, and it’s during this stretch of the film that Payne and Taylor come the closest to cutting loose. Kathy Bates plays it big, and if we hadn’t all met people exactly like Roberta, it would seem impossible. She’s open to the point of being offensive, and her nude scene (yes, you read that right) is one of this year’s most jaw-dropping images. If she wins an Oscar for her work here, they should pin it to her chest like a medal for courage. Hesseman plays beautifully off of her, and he’s as squashed and as frustrated as Warren in his own way. He doesn’t have a lot of time, but he makes the most of it, as do Harry Groener and Connie Ray as the Rusks, fellow Winnebago enthusiasts who encounter Warren in a trailer campground one night.

The film doesn’t build to anything like a conventional ending. There’s a moment, a wedding toast given by Warren, that is a remarkable act of love, all things considered. It’s not the best-written speech of all time. It’s not an opportunity for one of those cloying Hollywood slow claps. It’s an awkward, vaguely rambling wedding toast, riddled with cliché. The reason it’s so exceptional is because of how Warren really feels. He realizes that the wedding isn’t about him. The toast isn’t about him. It’s not his day, and it’s not important if he’s happy or not. He gives Jeannie a memory she’ll always cherish, no matter what the truth is, no matter what he feels, and it’s probably the strongest thing Warren does in the whole movie. As soon as he does it, he collapses back in on himself and retreats to his own home again, back to retirement in Omaha. One last letter to Ndugu gets sent, and it’s that last letter which will likely leave some people breathless. It’s a cold and lonely world as seen by Warren Schmidt, and death is guaranteed to be sooner, rather than later. It’s like being dunked in cold water, these final thoughts of Warren’s, bleak almost beyond bear, and just when you think Payne and Taylor have no hearts, they close the film with a scene that will break yours.

One of the reasons I hate it when people get wrapped up in races and contests at the end of the year is because it marginalizes accomplishments like this one. I don’t know if ABOUT SCHMIDT is enough of a gimmick or a sensation or a phenomenon to be a major contender for awards and such, and I don’t really care. I believe in these people. I believe in Warren Schmidt. For two hours, I was granted a rare window into the heart of another person, and I can’t imagine a more wonderful gift this Christmas season.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 25, 2002, 6:47 a.m. CST

    Nicholson for president!

    by rubycon

    ...You can't handle the truth!

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 6:48 a.m. CST

    Mike Sch(a)nk is more aware of his surroundings than you think,

    by The Tao of Joe

    I would understand using a movie character or animal as the butt of such a comment, but Mike is a real person with real feelings man. You shouldnt say such a mean thing about a person who put their phone number on the internet, inviting people to call him, and who also believes the neverending story parts 1 and 2 are among the greatest films ever made. This is probably the meanest thing you have ever done, and I am a person who read your Simon Birch review, but I mean I wonder if you even know what you have done. I think you owe mike an apology. Many a man would buckle under the temporary spotlight of a documentary (i.e. reality tv stars), but I think Mike has maintained a great part of what made us love him in the movie to begin with. Shame on you man.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 7:32 a.m. CST


    by Everborn

    Sounds interesting indeed!

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 7:35 a.m. CST

    Damn you Mori and your inside connections!

    by Edward Rooney

    I think I am going to be the last person to see this film and Adaptation! Oh well, I'm excited anyway...

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 8:39 a.m. CST

    Sounds pretty good

    by Glass

    This review actually made me curious to see it. The trailer is absolutely terrible. But perhaps it's worth a shot. Although, I have to say, Nicholson's performance in the The Pledge was NOT affecting, it was overdone, hammed up. I was not impressed with that movie or with Jack in the slightest.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 9:29 a.m. CST


    by cady

    Nicholson is Nicholson, period. Although I've only seen the trailer, there was nothing in it to suggest that I was watching anybody other than Nicholson. Clip after clip Nicholson was doing Nicholson. What's it going to be - his 14th Oscar nomnation? Either he's the most overrated actor ever or the Oscars are the most overrated awards show ever.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 9:35 a.m. CST

    Mori is an awesome columnist!

    by Giant Fish

    If I was half the writer he is, I'd be a happy man.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 10:07 a.m. CST

    Alexander Payne, 1999 and tempting fate

    by Dickie Greenleaf

    Is it too early to start thinking about 2002 possibly rivalling 1999 as being the best year for American cinema in recent memory. As Moriarty correctly points out, 1999 felt like a true watershed, not just because there was an unusual number of great films released, after all, every year turns up its fair share of quality, but it was rather the sheer variety and, in some cases, outright bravery demonstrated by this group of exciting young filmmakers (Payne, Fincher, PTA, Mendes, Jonze et al.). I already think we've seen two films genuinely deserving of being called modern classics, Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT and Sam Mendes' ROAD TO PERDITION, and when one looks at the list of the year's other major contenders, most of which still waiting to be released, almost every single one is different or unique in some way; PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, FAR FROM HEAVEN, SOLARIS, ADAPTATION, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, CHICAGO and ABOUT SCHMIDT all look like being true originals. One of the other factors in 1999's significance was the work of more established and experienced directors, Michael Mann's THE INSIDER, Anthony Minghella's THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, Ang Lee's RIDE WITH THE DEVIL and Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT, and this year we still have Scorsese's GANGS OF NEW YORK and Spielberg's CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (hopefully his second great film of the year) in the offing. My point is that this is potentially a very exciting time for cinema, and hopefully this fact will not be lost on audiences. I can't wait to see ABOUT SCHMIDT, and judging from the trailer and the few reviews I have read so far, it looks to me as though it may be a perfect companion piece to Bob Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES, which not only showcased Nicholson's best performance to date at the time, it was also the film that really kickstarted the 70s, and set the tone for the kind of filmmaking that would ultimately come to characterize the decade. Let's hope that ABOUT SCHMIDT (and maybe some of these other hopefuls) can have the same effect in the present. Payne is certainly a really interesting director, somebody who can make films that are both supremely entertaining and have something to say, but with a finesse and subtlety that eludes so many of his peers. ELECTION, in particular, had a real Wilder-esque sense of wit, which is a great thing as there has been such a grave shortage of genuine talent in the comedy arena for so long. Filmmakers like Payne, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are a big part of why this should be a time of optimism.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 10:31 a.m. CST

    This sounds really good

    by 007-11

    Though i'm sure it will do poorly. No sing-song ending+ Kathy Bates nude scene(which you know every dumb fuck magazine writer with a word-of-the-day calendar and an inflated ego is going to constantly reference and make fun of)= average joe no like. Oh well, i'll go see it. Probably better if "Johnny Punchclock" and "Bill Yuppie" stay the hell away.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 10:47 a.m. CST

    1999 was a great year for film and Election was top of the heap.

    by Cutter's Way

    Say what you will, Election was the most accomplished film in terms of ambition and execution in many years. Anyone who discounts the film because it takes place in and concerns events surrounding high school misses much of what the film is about. And it's funny as hell. About Schmidt is the only film I have full confidence in this season. Although, Adaptation and Narc sound very promising.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 11:52 a.m. CST

    "The same kind of people who dismiss JACKIE BROWN because it did

    by Monkey Lover

    So if you dislike Jackie Brown you're one of the "people who are sensation junkies without attention span," are you? That is such an arrogant, elitist thing to say. Many people don't like Jackie Brown because it's shit. It doesn't take a genius to understand the movie, it's not high art. It's just a bad film. And I wouldn't criticise anyone for having a "terrible taste in film," if I were you, Moriarty. Remember, you liked Kiss Of The Dragon. Step down from the pedestal and realise your taste is just as valid as everyone else's and not any more so.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 12:08 p.m. CST



    Jack Nicholson is the greatest

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 12:10 p.m. CST

    Badass is mistaken

    by Renp

    Sorry BadAssUncleFucka. I hate to correct you but it seems as though you are thinking of Mark Borchardt and not Mike Schank. Mark is the one with the love of movies, Mike is his buddy. And Mori was being mean. The poignancy of American Movie was that Mike Schank was more observant and thoughtful than his appearance and personality would suggest. And far more than most of the other people featured in the film. Shame on Mori for picking on the guy. We should all be so blissfully content.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 12:18 p.m. CST

    Class of 99 and a defense of Erin Brockovich

    by JohnnyBarrett

    Why is it that this "class of 99" thing never seems to include documentaries (Mr. Death and American Movie were two of the best movies that year) or films from older filmmakers (Michael Mann peaked with The Insider)? Also, The Limey (one of the best Soderbergh films) is rarely included. Oh well. Two quick points. Demme's Handle With Care is really called Citizens Band. Handle With Care was the bad studio version, with the ending chopped off so try to avoid that but find Citizens Band, as soon as possible. Demme's followup, Melvin and Howard, fits into the same category that Moriarty was describing. Finally, I want to defend Erin Brockovich, for a second. I think Moriarty is wrong and I think it is a totally affectionate, humanist film. People who are side-tracked by Julia Roberts' cleavage are the problem, not the film's use of cleavage because: 1) The film isn't trivializing her because of her cleavage, 2) It's a true story and her body was an important part of how she accomplished things with certain people and was dismissed by others. In fact, I think Erin Brockovich has been unfairly criticized because it places more emphasis on characterization than on directorial and narrative gimmickery (ie. Spike Jonze, David Fincher, etc...whose films ARE good but maybe a little over-rated). Say what you want about Election (I liked it a lot) but the filmmakers are far less respectful of those characters than Soderbergh is of his.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 12:21 p.m. CST

    I liked Kiss of the Dragon...

    by The Gline

    ...but I liked Jackie Brown more. Calling a film "shit" without any qualification is pretty useless. "JB" is the best of Tarantino's movies I've seen so far, and it's a remarkably elegiac film from a man who's normally known for getting in your face non-stop.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 1:07 p.m. CST

    Jackie Brown...

    by Monkey Lover

    The reason it's shit is because it's basically a long set of conversations between not particularly intelligent people. And the conversations they have are not interesting. They are boring, not because I demand action and adrenaline from my films (shit, Pulp Fiction has lengthy scenes of dialogue in it which are fine), but because they're not at all interesting on any level. So don't pretend that liking lengthy dialogue about nothing at all makes you an intellectually superior film-goer.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 2:14 p.m. CST

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Doctor Moriarty!

    by WarDog

    I live in Omaha, and I HAVE GOT TO SEE THIS MOVIE!!! Also grew up in Nebraska, and the preview scenes ring so true with the people here. I think I will feel for Warren R. Schmidt as you did. And I hope Nicholson wins another Academy Award for this.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 2:19 p.m. CST

    Ticket prices

    by Glass

    I'd like to know on what planet movie tickets are 8 dollars. I pay 10.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 2:45 p.m. CST

    Ticket prices

    by Anakin722

    Believe it or not, there ARE places where you can see a first-rum film for less than 8 bucks. Here in central Virginia, full price admission to the nicest theater around (the Commonwealth 20 in Midlothian) is $7.75. But my friend in L.A. pays 14 bones for the nice theater, so I feel kinda lucky....

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 2:48 p.m. CST


    by Glass

    That's completely insane. There should be a law...I don't know what law, but a law nonetheless.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 3:01 p.m. CST

    I pay pounds...

    by Monkey Lover

    A fine currency. At Uni, I have to pay

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 3:23 p.m. CST


    by seanbateman1985

    I get in for a student price of 6.50. But the actual price is 8...At most AMC's in Southern California.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 3:32 p.m. CST

    to much 'Class to ever deliver a 'YF&N' type plunge into extremi

    by seanbateman1985

    What is wrong with extremism? It CAN be good in a lot of instances. I liked "YF&N". Satire and going to extremes to prove your "point" is really fucking overused these days, I'll admit-but a lot of the time I think that it is more effective than not. Isn't this the site that loved "The Rules of Attraction", which is far more to the extreme than "YF&N". But Avary did it with class???

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 4:36 p.m. CST

    the pledge: underseen, and rightfully so, because it SUCKED.

    by BEARison Ford

    horrible, aimless movie. what was up with benicio del toro's fozzy the muppet acting? yikes.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 4:37 p.m. CST

    Monkey Lover

    by WeedyMcSmokey

    I thought Jackie Brown was great - and showed that Tarantino could do a movie about flawed people who weren't just animated versions of movie cool. Plus, its the last role DeNiro had in a fucking decade where he played something other than an amalgamation of all his other characters' quirks and 'isms'. Its a good film, and entirely too underrated. Sorry if you got bored.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 4:48 p.m. CST

    Jackie Brown

    by Glass

    It was a good movie the first time around, but I saw it a total of 3 times in the theater, and each time it got progressively more boring. Bridget Fonda begins to weigh on your nerves, not intentionally, as she does with DeNiro, but unintentionally- her 8 year old girl act is just a bit much. Samuel Jackson lost whatever charisma he had in that movie, and DeNiro might as well have been sound asleep on the shitter. But, again, the first time through I thought it was the best movie I'd ever seen.

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 6:35 p.m. CST

    Just To Clarify...

    by drew mcweeny

    Here's a good example of what blows me away about Talkbacks. Good god, how specific do I have to be? Some of you people seem to be as hypersensitive as a skinned cat. Did I say, "Everyone who dislikes JACKIE BROWN is a moron"? No. I didn't. I said that the people that will have a problem with ABOUT SCHMIDT are "People who are sensation junkies without attention span. The same kind of people who dismiss JACKIE BROWN because it didn

  • Nov. 25, 2002, 9:20 p.m. CST

    an interwoven comb-over with a flip...?

    by ElGuapo

    sometimes you don't need a lot of reasons to go and see a movie. for instance... nicholson with an award winning comb-over in a film by the good folk behind "election"... nuff said. if you're interested in film surely you'd be interested in this? just like you should be interested in anything by tarantino, "the class of 99", or anyone that is passionately pursuing their craft - whatever the result. you don't have to like it and you may disagree with some of their creative choices, but at least some people are working towards something other than next summer's event movie and/or franchise instalment. and if we do have to have "blockbusters" (and i think we do) then isn't the propect of one of them getting their hands on it at least a little more interesting than the alternatives?

  • Nov. 26, 2002, 12:49 a.m. CST

    I don't give a Schmidt about this movie

    by I Hate Movies

    Someone had to say it.

  • Nov. 26, 2002, 1:25 a.m. CST


    by Nekko

    Moriarty, I haven't always liked you, but who cares why. For the most part it's because your reviews drone on and on. But I gotta hand it to you, bro, this is a well-written piece. You moved me. I was interested in seeing this before, but now I'm all over ABOUT SCHMIDT. Judging by this review, you may just be a talented film critic after all.

  • Nov. 26, 2002, 5:28 a.m. CST

    bs review

    by bigalaska

    Yeah, i have never really commented on talkback before, but i am tired of this shit about how middle america is completely different from LA and NY. Look, there really is no difference, some people are different, but for the most part everyone is the same. I go to school in "middle america", but I am from the west coast. There is no difference, just depends on who you associate with. I am just tired of hearing about how "hollywood" people dont asociate with middle america. Also, most of the reviews on this site are pretty much BS. Just cause you have a site on the net, doesnt mean that you know shit about movies. Im fuckin tired of this shit, "well its a social comment on life", well, it is usually not. I'll keep commenting now in the future, just to keep people honest. Peace, just a poor college student

  • Nov. 26, 2002, 7:18 a.m. CST

    Barcode Head

    by Grand Digital

    Man the Pledge was so bad. It was like boring and depressing and Jack Nicholson had a moustache. Anyway, in Japan people with combovers are called barcoda-atama - barcode head. That's kind of funny. Shut up. Yeah election was good. That's it, bye !

  • Nov. 26, 2002, 7:41 p.m. CST

    nicholson rules

    by ZO

    what a career

  • Dec. 1, 2002, 3:08 a.m. CST

    Well, I don't live in Omaha but I still want to see this film.

    by nazismasher

    I also thought the trailer was only so-so but this is a good review Moriarty. Unfortunately, this film set in middle America - you can only see in LA and NY? (sigh) I guess I'm still seeing Nemesis on Dec. 13 then. :-|