About Schmidt | The Pianist

About Schmidt | The Pianist

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...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.