In the immediate aftermath of the passing of his wife, Helen, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) writes the African child he is sponsoring one of his long, confessional letters that serve as the reason-de-voice over for the film. As an insurance actuary, he can chart the probability of his own death and realizes that time is precious. He resolves to cherish life and try to live every moment of every day to its fullest.
Cut to a scene of Warren, mouth open, snoring, sitting in front of a television set with the type “One Week Later” on the screen.
I am not sure what it says about Alexander Payne’s tragicomedy that the first thing I thought of when reviewing that scene was that, beat for beat, it was the same joke and timing from the classic episode of The Simpsons where Homer survives eating what he momentarily thinks is a poison blowfish.
A decade later, on the day I write this, Payne’s 2012 film, The Descendants, has been nominated for best picture of the year, with Payne himself getting a best director nomination to boot. I guess I can’t say then that this auteur’s shtick is wearing thin on anyone but me. Both films feature men who find out their dead (or dying) wives have had affairs. Again, I am not entirely sure what that signifies. A lot of writers have situations they explore from multiple angles or integrate into very different narratives. Both films are based on novels, too, so perhaps it is just a coincidence that the director picked them, a decade apart, as foundations for his projects.
I couldn’t much shake the feeling here, though, as with last year’s revisit of The Royal Tennenbaums, that as quirky and as interesting as this might have seemed ten years ago, the proceeding span would bring me not development but repetition, not new innovations, but continual regurgitaitons.
Is that an explaining by naming fallacy? In the wake of rewatching About Schmidt, I have spent some time questioning myself about the differences between style and shtick. Can I enumerate those differences, or are they just different words to alternately say roughly the same things, one attached to films by auteurs I like (such as Aaron Sorkin who has some definite themes and even lines that get recycled Sports Night to The West Wing to The American President to The Social Network) and the other to those I am less enamored with (even Sideways, the Payne film I recall liking the most, is something I’ve never felt moved to look at again).
My dictionary says that shtick is self-conscious, it is not just something someone does routinely but that he or she does routinely for the purpose of bringing attention to himself. Visually, to be honest, I don’t see that in Payne’s work. He doesn’t have some of the gimmicks of a Lucas or Speilberg–spot shadowing, or allowing the camera to linger on a spot after someone has moved out of frame to ensure that you see what others would leave at the margin for the attentive viewer to catch (or not).
Narratively, however, there is a lot of exposition that is on the nose. The device of the letter writing is a clever way at getting to the voice-over, but voice-over is intrinsically expository and tends to tell rater than show.
Payne’s films also appear to be populated with transparently unlikable people who are exaggerated to the point of buffonishness. What plot there is in About Schmidt deals with the impending marriage of Warren’s daughter (Hope Davis, years before In Treatment!) and a world class loser who thinks that the week after mom-in-law’s death is a good time to approach Warren about a multi-level-marketing opportunity. Kathy Bates was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress statuette for her turn as the crazy in-law to be. She’s terrific in everything she does, but it is hard not to see her much commented upon nude scene through the filter of the scene in Sideways where Paul Giammati has to sneak into a room where fat people are having sex. That the protagonist is arrogant and intolerant allows for an epiphany of self-revelation and self-contempt, but this film never really indicts the viewer for sharing Warren’s low opinion of anything and anyone.
At one point in his cross-country RV trip, Warren stops at a museum over a highway in the Midwest meant to commemorate the pioneer spirit. Warren compares the tenacity, courage, and perseverance of the early settlers to that of the modern man with endless helps yet less achievements. It is here, I suspect, that About Schmidt is meant to make a cultural comment that reaches beyond one man’s personal story. Is Warren the every man who is confronted with a modern sense of uselessness and purposelessness? If so, then I suspect part of my dissatisfaction with the story is the assumption that nothing can be done to alleviate that feeling and so the best we can do is have sympathy towards those who have been stripped of the comforting delusions of love, joy, and purpose that make life bearable.
What if they are not delusions and illusions though? What if a life well lived is not just a pipe dream and value and self worth can be attained by something other than writing a check? It’s moving that as he wonders whether his life makes a difference to anyone that Warren receives a letter from his sponsored child, but, really, doesn’t this scene just fall into the trap of an economically deterministic world view that says, in the end, money (and how we spend it) is the only thing that really matters?