ABOUT SCHMIDT--THE MOVIE
THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
By Michael Asimow
About Schmidt is a good movie, and Jack Nicholson
and Kathy Bates do a great job, but . . .
You know where it says in the
credits "based on the book by Louis Begley"? Well,
fuhgeddabout it. There is virtually nothing in common between
the novel and the movie. And the result is a huge lost opportunity.
This could have been a really great movie about the soul of a
only things that the book and movie have in common is that both
are about retired widowers who don't know what to do with themselves;
both hate their prospective sons-in-law; both have ambiguous
relationships with the mothers of their sons-in-law to be. The
screenwriter kept the title to the book and dumped everything
else. Now, this isn't unheard of--filmmakers have sometimes bought
book titles and ditched the contents. Why they would do that
here isn't clear--the book was not a best seller and the title
isn't going to bring many people into the theater because they
have fond memories of the book. But the result of this cavalier
disregard of the book's contents is tragic, because the book
was so good and could have been so cinematic.
There is nothing significant
in common between book and movie. The book is set in New York
and concerns a wealthy retired Wall St. lawyer named Schmidt
who is anything but a nebbish. The film involves a shallow, basically
boring, retired insurance guy in Omaha named Schmidt. The son-in-law
in the book (Jon Riker) is a young lawyer at Schmidt's old firm
whom Schmidt had mentored. The son-in-law in the book (Randall)
is a loser who sells water beds. The reason Schmidt hates Riker
in the book is anti-Semitism--he is Jewish and Schmidt's daughter
is planning to convert. Schmidt finds that utterly unbearable.
In the movie, Randall and his family, are firmly working class;
Schmidt hates him and the family because of class bias. In the
book, the secular Jewish Riker family is just as upper class
as Schmidt; Jon Riker's mother is a brilliant psychotherapist
who might be seducing Schmidt. In the movie, Randall's mother
Roberta is some sort of new age guru who discusses her orgasms
and is definitely seducing Schmidt.
In the book, there is no road
trip, no Winnebago, and no Tanzanian orphan (Personally I found
the letters from Schmidt to the orphan off--putting--I always
thought it is considered weak screen writing to rely on voice-overs
in which the character tells you how he feels.)
Instead, the book involves
a beautifully nuanced portrait of a Wall St. lawyer whose firm
has forced him out because his method of practice is old fashioned
and he doesn't make any rain. Then they screw him on the retirement
plan. The book is about lawyers, and law firms, which is unsurprising
since author Begley is a senior partner specializing in international
law at Debevoise & Plimpton and knows whereof he speaks.
When I heard the book was being made into a film, I was thrilled
because the book delves so deeply into Schmidt's soul. Although
involuntarily retired, Schmidt is a lawyer, through and through,
in the way he look at the world and handles relationships with
friends, former colleagues, and his family.
In my opinion (and I'm not
alone here), the best lawyer movie of all time is Counsellor
at Law (1933), directed at breakneck speed by William Wyler
and starring John Barrymore. The great news is that this classic
has just become available on VHS and DVD. If you haven't seen
it, do so immediately. Not a bit dated, it's about an up-from-the
gutter New York Jew (George Simon) who has a silk-stocking NY
practice but is constantly being dragged back into the lower
east side. The entire film is set in Simon's gorgeous art deco
office. We see an astounding variety of clients, relatives, staff
members, legal problems, personal problems, ethical problems.
We see lots of brutal anti-Semitism as well as class bias. Most
of all, we gaze into the soul of a great lawyer. About Schmidt
could have been--should have been--an updated Counsellor at
Law. Nicholson would have been great in the part--he could
have peeled away the layers of onion, disclosing how a lifelong
lawyer to the bone (anti-Semitic warts and all) copes with retirement,
personal crises, and family disintegration. But no.
And why in the world did they
drop the anti-Semitism theme? This could have been one of the
best movies ever on that subject--as good as Gentlemen's Agreement.
Did the filmmakers feel the audience couldn't accept a protagonist
who was anti-Semitic? Is this political correctness in action?
We might as well head back into the world of the Hays Code if
filmmakers self-censor themselves away from grappling with sensitive
In the book , Schmidt is redeemed
by a romance with Carrie, a 24-year old Hispanic waitress who
is able to give him what he really needs--great sex, of course,
but also a soul mate who really understands him. (The affair
with Carrie is carried forward in Begley's sequel Schmidt
Delivered). Needless to say, Schmidt's relationship with
Carrie drives his snooty daughter absolutely berserk. Schmidt's
breach of the generational barrier (not to mention the class
and ethnicity barriers) made the book really absorbing and downright
uplifting. The movie ends with
. a letter from a nun in
Africa suggesting that Schmidt is redeemed because he sends $22
a month to a Tanzanian orphan. Thud. Which ending do you find
more compelling in human terms?
About Schmidt could have been Counsellor at Law
for the new millennium. Instead it was a pretty forgettable vehicle
for stars Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates to strut their stuff.
What a waste.
Posted February 13, 2003