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Director Alexander Payne piqued interest from a large audience with his darkly comedic debut, Election, making his follow up, About Schmidt a highly anticipated release. Part of the interest surrounded the casting of one Jack Nicholson, reportedly playing against type and turning in one of his best performances yet. Australian audiences didn’t get to see the film until around the time of the Oscars, with the theatrical release riding on the wave of Nicholson’s nomination in the Best Actor category. Were they right or was this just another one of the Academy’s little nomination errors?

About Schmidt

We pick things up at Warren Schmidt (Nicholson)’s retirement party, where he farewells his job as an insurance broker. It is immediately apparent that not only is old Warren retiring, he also looks to have had the life well and truly squeezed out of him over the years to the point where he suffers the intolerable personalities around him with a painfully expressionless look on his face.

Warren’s wife has now become a source of annoyance for him rather than a partner, yet he never seems to put up a fight or take matters into his own hands. Before long the burden of his spouse is lifted as she keels over in the middle of cleaning up the kitchen. Warren returns after a rebellious trip to an ice cream shop to find her face down on the floor, the next shot revealing an even blanker look, if that’s at all possible.

Before his wife’s death Warren had a lot more time on his hands due to giving up his job, and became enticed by a commercial advertising the need for sponsors of Tanzanian children. With nothing better to do he picks up the phone and begins to write a cheque for a 6-year old boy named Ndugu, deciding to send a letter along with it to introduce himself. Here is where a lot of the humour resides. Warren uses these letters as a way to vent his pent up frustrations, of how his successor at work isn’t a patch on his good self, how he finds himself asking about the old woman who lives in his house, and of how she never lets him pee standing up. These “Dear Ndugu” moments are pure brilliance but importantly never become the crux of the film.

Warren also mentions his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), whom he talks about fondly but regrets the fact he will see even less of her since her engagement to a man named Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Now being a 66-year old man with a lot of time on his hands, Warren decides to make the most of his time left by spending some quality time with his daughter. The problem is she isn’t exactly thrilled to see him, especially since he blatantly objects to her marrying the deadbeat Randall.

About Schmidt

The wedding day inevitably comes around, allowing Warren to become mixed up with Randall’s oddball family and meander through proceedings before finally giving a bizarre speech at the reception. He meets liberated double-divorcee Roberta (Kathy Bates in full flight), Randall’s mother, who delights in telling Warren how sexually charged she is. This snowball of annoying characters only lets us in on Warren’s anguish, all hidden behind the deadpan exterior.

Without doubt, it is Nicholson who shines here. The fact that we know him more for his cheeky grin, his extravagant characters and big mouth only serves to heighten his subdued performance in this one. We’re all thinking the inner “Jack” inside is dying in the body of a man who is just beyond caring anymore, one who thinks his worth to people is basically naught. The film’s payoff, using the little Tanzanian boy as a vehicle, is one of the best film moments of the year, one that really does ram home a the message after all the off-beat humour and oddball characters. And boy, does Nicholson shine right then and there, reminding us of why he has been held in such high regard for so long.

The brave decision by director Payne to leave much of the story open towards the end may alarm some viewers, so those after complete closure may not be entirely satisfied. Yet I deny anyone not to feel the finale isn’t a worthy beat to finish on, as the loose ends are punctuated by one simple instance.

This is a top flick, with Nicholson arguably rounding out a fine career with one of his personal best. Alexander Payne has some serious talent, and I anticipate his future work more than any other current director save for Paul Thomas Anderson. While bringing out the best from the lead he has also assembled a fine support cast who bounce off an expressionless Warren Schmidt to provide all the chuckles and balance of the film. Watch it and be pleasantly surprised.

About Schmidt

Another fine transfer from the folks at Roadshow, with the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer coming up trumps overall amongst a few little nasties that might grab you’re attention for a second or two. There is a bit of noise floating about among the scenery and some aliasing creeps in on a couple of occasions, though none of this is really anything to worry about.

It is nice to see Alexander Payne has carried through with his trademark visual style, using muted colours but not necessarily a dull palette. These are rendered quite well with this transfer, with a rather drab looking view on life punctuated by sharp visuals and realistic colours and skin tones. There’s nothing really remarkable about any of it but you’ll most likely be immersed in the story and not care all that much.

Surprisingly, there are three soundtracks to choose from here; A DTS 5.1 mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and your humble 2.0 version. The two 5.1 mixes are almost identical for the most part, with only the DTS mix exhibiting a bit more clarity with the score and the dialogue, as well as your inevitable slight increase in volume. Surround use is minimal, kept to instances of ambient effects and the unobtrusive score. Dialogue, the most important aspect of this film, is always clear sitting in the centre speaker throughout.

The DTS track was probably included just because they could, as it offers no real discernible difference to the Dolby Digital mix, but at least it’s an option for those who like their DTS mixes. Like the visual transfer there’s nothing really spectacular going on but the job has well and truly been done with the audio tracks we are given.

About Schmidt

Oh dear. Election featured such a good track from the director I couldn’t wait to throw the disc in and hear his thoughts on this one. Sadly, Alexander Payne is nowhere to be heard, leaving us with a paltry selection of extras.

What we do get is a package of deleted scenes, nine in total, with a text-based introduction from Payne as to their relevance and context. This is the way all deleted scenes packages should be assembled, with shots from the previous and following scenes added in to show you where they were meant to be situated. All scenes come with a text-based description of why they were cut, which makes up a little for the lack of an audio commentary on the film or the extras.

In these text-based explanations we get a lot of detail as to the relevance of each scene and the motivations behind their excision. My only complaint is that the text runs for a specific time and is only skippable by the fast forward button on the remote, which runs the risk of cutting off the first part of the vision. Only a small gripe, because these scenes are some of the best discards I’ve seen in quite some time. I thought the film was good, but geez, even the stuff they cut out is top notch, both visually and dramatically. There’s even a scene which was included in the TV and airline versions, just for completeness.

Next up are five short films (really just montage sequences) about the Woodmen Tower, made up from footage shot by the second unit for the opening sequence. Payne uses another text based introduction to explain all this and is actually apologetic that it isn’t really much to do with the actual film. Nevertheless, at least the efforts have been made. I don’t know that there’s much interest here as it is really just evidence of editors practicing their craft.

Finally there is the theatrical trailer, which ironically uses some of the score from American Beauty, probably the closest match for this film. It’s a great little trailer and should really have attracted more box office than it did.

About Schmidt

The film itself is outstanding. What we have is a brilliant little character study that will give you a few chuckles yet drive home a poignant message at the end as we witness the absurdities of life and people through the eyes of a disenchanted old man. The video, audio and extras are serviceable without being anything outstanding so the disc isn’t all that great, but you’ll want to pick this up merely for the film itself, watching in awe as Nicholson does a complete 180.