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Michael Asimow


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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?

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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 lawyer.

The 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 subjects.

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

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