Alexander Payne made a name for himself with Election, his wry study of a high school teacher’s demolition by an aggressive, ambitious girl. The movie had me shuddering to recall four long-ago years spent as a young high school English teacher, and my dread of one day becoming Matthew Broderick’s doughy and downtrodden forty-year-old, stuck forever in the same routines and ideas, the same clothes. Election possessed an unusually ambiguous tone-realism with an elusive satiric impulse that left us unsure whether these characters were being mocked by life itself, or merely by the director. Payne’s careful control contained undercurrents of something quietly subversive, and his film drifted interestingly between comedy and tragedy.

It’s one thing to get a muted, Everyman performance from Matthew Broderick. Now, in About Schmidt, Payne and his screenwriter, Jim Taylor, attempt the magic trick of Everymanizing none other than that icon of rebelliousness, Jack Nicholson. At the film’s outset, Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is retiring after decades of stoical service to the Woodmen Insurance Company, a gray obelisk of a building in a gray city (Omaha). As the rather too-obvious pun announces, Schmidt himself is wooden: a man of habits so regular, he wakes in the morning two seconds before the alarm. It’s that subversive impulse again in Payne, giving us the running gag of Nicholson tamed-donning half-lens specs and a loopy glasses strap to do the morning newspaper word jumble, or meekly obeying his wife Helen’s dictum to sit while urinating, avoiding unseemly splashes. A man so henpecked, his wife tells him how to pee.

In retirement, Warren and Helen plan to travel in their new, gigantic Winnebago. But on the verge of departure, Helen suffers a fatal stroke. After the funeral, through a haze of grief, Schmidt takes stock. Always the actuary, he recalculates his own life expectancy-being a widower puts him in a different risk pool-and arrives at a 73-percent chance of dying within nine years. What to do with his remaining time? Channel-surfing one sleepless night, he catches an ad for an international charity, decides on an impulse to get involved, and ends up sponsoring a six-year-old African boy named Ndugu. Schmidt writes a series of letters to the boy; voiced-over by Nicholson, they muse on his life and his dawning sense of its limitations: boring job and narrow horizons; a daughter he loved but rarely made time for; a wife he barely knew. Perplexed, he heads out in the Winnebago on a mission to see what he has missed.

About Schmidt (based loosely on the novel by Louis Begley) bears Payne’s trademark mix of satire and sympathy, and it’s even more pronounced than in Election. There’s a lurking misanthropy in the film’s treatment of the depredations of age-merciless close-ups of Schmidt and his wife, their varicose veins and turkey-wattle necks-and in the jabs Payne takes at idiocies all around, such as the fatuous attempts of the family minister to console Warren ("God can handle it if we’re mad at him!"). Worst of all is the disastrous family Warren’s daughter is about to marry into, a graceless mob of halfwits headed by Kathy Bates as a foul-mouthed virago. Payne indulges in sitting-duck comic potshots, like giving Warren’s prospective son-in-law a horrifying haircut, or showing us his family eating like pigs at a trough.

Beneath this surface mockery lies the deeper absurdity of Nicholson’s letters, offering avuncular advice to an impoverished East African six-year-old ("Remember this, young man-you’ve got to appreciate what you have while you still have it"), as his Winnebago whizzes past Midwestern fields of wheat and grain-fed cattle. The advice is so misplaced, it’s grotesque; and yet we’re drawn in by a steady force of sympathy for Warren himself and his need, however awkwardly, to do good. The movie closes with a close-up of Nicholson in a spasm of grief and joy, weeping at an image of simple human connection contained in a child’s stick-drawing. The moment is simultaneously moving and maudlin, making us wonder, is Payne mocking the redemption, or boosting it? Is About Schmidt a wicked satire, or a heartfelt rendering of a man so lonely, he reaches halfway across the globe for companionship? It’s true that a director can pull a surprising and precarious unity out of an argument with himself. But sometimes what at first look passes for inspiration turns out to be just plain old incoherence.

or almost half a century Roman Polanski has been blurring the line between the real and unreal. In films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Repulsion, the surreal serves a floating state of dread that verges on psychosis, and a Kafkaesque vision rooted in the horror of atrocity. Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto in 1939 at age seven, and has made a lifetime of films informed implicitly by the Holocaust. Now, in The Pianist, he takes on the subject directly. The film is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a brilliant young pianist and highly assimilated Polish Jew, who experienced the Nazi occupation in the Warsaw ghetto and-unlike most-survived to tell about it.

The Pianist is a homecoming for Polanski, the first film he has made in Poland in four decades. It’s anything but a heartwarming occasion. His movie chronicles the incremental horror that beset Poland’s Jews after the Nazi conquest in late 1939. First the banishment from parks and restaurants, the advent of armbands, the forced removal to the ghetto. Then casual sadism at the hands of German soldiers in the street, who humiliate starving Jews by making them dance at gunpoint. And finally scenes of unspeakable brutality: the degradations of starvation; death dealt out at whim; people driven to madness, like a wailing woman who, it turns out, smothered her baby to prevent soldiers from discovering the family’s hiding place. And through it all, the desperate rationalizations of victims whose only solace is self-delusion. "At least we’re still together," Szpilman’s mother whimpers, while shots and screams resound in the street outside.

But not for long. By 1943 Szpilman’s family has been shipped off to the death camps, while he, through a fortuitous intervention, is saved, hidden in a series of apartments by various sympathetic Poles. Locked-in and alone, he suffers agonies of helpless waiting. Following the uprising and the destruction of the ghetto, Szpilman survives the final days of the war in the bombed-out city, foraging for something to eat amid a panorama of fantastic ruin. Bearded and gaunt, he has become a mumbling ghost, a madman sifting through the rubble for a tin of fruit.

With its large cast and sets, and its straightforward narrative, the first two-thirds of The Pianist has the look and feel of a high-quality TV miniseries. But, toward the end, Polanski puts his stamp on the material, lending it a sheen of the surreal. In an abandoned, half-ruined mansion, Szpilman is discovered by a German officer, who intuits he is a Jew, and asks his name and occupation. "A good name for a pianist," the officer says-in German, "Spielmann" literally means "player." The house happens to contain a piano, and the German orders Szpilman to "play something." What follows is an ironic and haunting variation on those earlier scenes in which Jews were forced to dance in the street, as this ghost of a man, his breath steaming in the winter cold, performs a spirited Chopin nocturne. Recognizing beauty in the performance and humanity in the player, the German officer not only spares Szpilman, but feeds him.

The mercy comes as a profound relief, and yet we can’t escape knowing that only the man’s whim has saved Szpilman’s life-and wondering what would have happened if Szpilman hadn’t been able to play. It is a stunning culmination, the film’s accumulated claustrophobia and dread relieved by mercy, yet mercy in turn checked by the absurdity of survival, its pedigree of accidents and near misses. The Pianist rises from chronicle into art, and in so doing, recapitulates the formation of Polanski’s sensibility itself-beginning in the horrific facts of history, and ending in the tormented subjectivity of alienation and the absurd. [end]

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2003-01-31 issue: View Contents
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