A movie I began watching because Brazil was taking time to download. (I had downloaded About Schmidt in the first place after reading that it has a short but impactful appearance by Kathy Bates in a Taste of Cinema article.)
This is the first Alexander Payne movie I’m watching. And am beginning to like his style. I was hooked the moment I saw the staging of Schmidt’s last day at work and the subsequent party that he throws for his friends and colleagues. The reaction on Schmidt’s face (Jack Nicholson was perfect! He makes you feel his age!) when his close friend makes a toast, hooked me in. The camera tracks closer to Schmidt slowly. And what he’s actually feeling is a big question mark.
There’s no built-in explanations or psycho-analysis given to you about what’s going through Schmidt’s mind. He does not talk to someone afterwards and express what his problem is. That’s what you, as an audience, have to figure out by watching the movie. And that’s strong filmmaking at work.
The interaction Schmidt has with his successor at work is brilliantly staged. I liked that. It starts with this wide shot establishing the guy’s office and the drab city beyond.
Then, we see Schmidt talking to him. But it’s not an over-the-shoulder shot! (And notice the successor’s family photo and a “success” poster on the top left neatly placed in the frame to add more character to the guy.)
And then, when we see the successor talk, we don’t see Schmidt. It’s NOT an OTS shot again. Why? This framing makes us feel the two of them are not comfortable with each other. That there is a distance between them. This is also conveyed through the lines they speak, and their reactions, but it’s done visually too!
Watch this scene at work here.
The writing of letters to Ndugu did feel like it was a mere excuse for Schmidt to have a narration. But, apart from being a narrative device, it also ends up telling us a lot about Schmidt. About how he has no idea about the day-to-day life of someone like Ndugu from Tanzania. But, the way Ndugu’s story wraps up with a letter from the nun at his place and the way Schmidt breaks down after reading was a bit too melodramatic for me.
The humour in this film was delightful. And sad at the same time. Picture these scenes. Schmidt is wondering if he’s even emotionally attached to his wife, while writing his first letter to Ndugu. And next scene, she’s dead and gone and he feels a void. Schmidt hates his daughter’s fiance. And the guy comes up to him asking if he’s feeling alright after his wife’s death and then talks about some pyramid money-making scheme. And then the fiance’s mother talks to Schmidt about her sex drive, while feeding him hot soup as he lays on bed with a broken neck. And then that remarkable scene in which Schmidt lies down on a water bed! And the childish glee with which Schmidt pees, while standing up, after his wife’s death 😀
The music helped the film along perfectly. I especially loved the Afrikaan beat theme. It contains the feel of the entire movie in it!
Alexander Payne, when asked what was the message he was trying to convey, (in a different film) had this to say. “If I could just tell you that I wouldn’t have to make a film now, would I? I can’t explain things to you. I just make them.”
Am definitely gonna be watching more of his films! Especially, Sideways.