As Good As He Gets

  • Warren Schmidt moves ponderously. This is not because Jack Nicholson, who plays him to perfection, is particularly weighty or out of shape for a 66-year-old man. What slows him is the rhythms of his region and his culture; he is a Midwesterner of the Wasp persuasion, which means he is solid, stolid and silent, except when exchanging arm's-length pleasantries with his friends. Like so many men of his class and place, he has bent himself to a job (as an insurance company actuary) that is at once dull and intricate and to a city (Omaha, Neb.) where the agreed-upon illusion is stability. Schmidt is probably in touch with certain things: his football team, his wife's tuna-noodle casserole and, at this season of the year, his snowblower. What he is not in touch with is his feelings — in particular, with his anger. He would deny its very existence, or that of any other emotion that might upset the even tenor of his days.

    But, speaking of denial, I had forgotten that men like Warren Schmidt still exist, even though they are my people. I was raised among them, though I fled their phlegmish company decades ago to join the chattering classes. Once in a while I read something that evokes them — Evan S. Connell's lovely novels about Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Garrison Keillor's sweet-savage Lake Wobegon comedies — but an air of reminiscence touches those works. I guessed that television, the Internet, the jet planes that could whisk these characters to Europe overnight, had long since thawed their taciturnity, granted them full citizenship in the culture of complaint.

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    I should have known better. After all, some of my old high school buddies still do pretty good Warren Schmidt imitations. So the first and most lasting surprise about Alexander Payne's About Schmidt is finding its protagonist unaltered by the passing years. The street he lives on still looks like the street where I grew up. His ability to turn potential drama into manageable banality remains unchanged.

    And yet Schmidt has what the rest of us have learned to call "issues." His wife, with whom he has settled into a life of hostile boredom, dies suddenly. She leaves him the house trailer in which they planned to embrace a footloose life and evidence that she once had an affair with his best friend. His ill-favored but blindly loved daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is about to marry a slippery water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney) and be absorbed into his awful family. They are ruled over by a mom (Kathy Bates) who is an overbearing monster of cordiality, and are lost in a time warp more preposterous than Schmidt's: they still live like '60s hippies.

    Off Schmidt goes in his trailer to rescue Jeannie. After a lifetime of self-effacement, a lifetime in which his every clumsy word has driven Jeannie into deeper resentment, we wonder if finally he will find the gumption to break the habit of polite dissimulation. What gives us hope is a character we never see. His name is Ndugo. He's a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy whom Warren sponsors with a $22-a-month contribution to Childreach. The charity encourages donors to write their "adoptees," and to this child Schmidt pours out all the suppressed secrets of his heart. We begin to think, Well, maybe.

    Perhaps we is the wrong pronoun. Maybe you would be more appropriate. Because not for a moment did I think Nicholson or Payne — an Omaha native — would betray Schmidt's essence. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, understands that lives like Schmidt's are composed of incidents that cannot, must not, be forced into confrontation. Payne also understands what it has taken me most of a lifetime to comprehend: that the Schmidts of this world are not to be easily dismissed. Payne did that brilliantly in Election a few years back. Here he's after something deeper. And maybe, if places like Omaha are not bred in your bones, you will grow impatient with the patience he expends on Schmidt, his refusal to satirize him and his dim inconsequence. But not me. The contempt I once felt for Schmidt and his ilk, the men who shaped me and my emotional refusals, was at least temporarily dissolved by this sublime and sorrowful movie, replaced by something that feels a little bit like compassion and a little bit like — dare I say it?--love.