Entry from July 28, 2010

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.” The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC website for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 27th with About Schmidt by Alexander Payne, starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

To those of you who are returning after a two week hiatus to the fifth in our six movies on the theme of the Pursuit of Happiness, welcome back. To those who have missed any or all of the first four movies, I should say that they dated from the 1930s and 1940s and they showed us an America in which politically-inspired doubts during the Depression-era — doubts about individual wealth, and its acquisition, and the behavior of those who had acquired it were gradually giving way to a post-war belief in economic dynamism and individual ambition. The advertising business was prominently featured in two of those movies, Christmas in July by Preston Sturges, from 1940, and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, from 1948, in part because they wanted to show us how Americans had bought into the assumption behind the newly dominant advertising industry — the assumption that, as somebody pointed out in our discussion of Mr Blandings two weeks ago, money can buy happiness.

I said at the end of my talk on that movie that we are still living in that world, more than 60 years later, though I didn’t mean by that to imply that our confidence in the felicific properties of money has remained as untroubled as it may have appeared to be in 1948. Far from it. We remain what has since come to be called a “consumerist” society and culture largely because nobody has yet thought of a persuasive way out of it, though there have been some attempts, from religious revivalism, from political radicalism and from environmental puritanism to talk us out of our addiction to consumption. None of these has made any significant political impact, although rhetorical obeisance to some of their favorite pieties, particularly those of the environmental movement, has become what has taken the place of political thought for some on the left.

The consumer society, that is, may be unpopular in theory but we remain unshakeably attached to it in practice. Moreover, we are also attached to its mythologies, as we saw again in the fourth season premiere of “Mad Men” on television the night before last. Chief among these mythologies, a word which I don’t intend in any pejorative sense, is the idea that selling things is among the world’s art forms and the one that Americans are particularly good at. Tonight’s film, About Schmidt directed by Alexander Payne and co-written by him with Jim Taylor, may seem at first glance to have nothing to do with any of this. It is about a man, Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, at the moment of his retirement from a long career with one firm, the Woodmen of the World Insurance company of Omaha, and the sudden sense of emptiness he experiences as he looks back on a life that now seems meaningless, a failure. The American Dream — if we can use that tired and problematic expression for a moment — was for him what it was already beginning to appear to be in Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, something to be taken for granted.

And yet, unlike Cary Grant in the 1948 film, whom we leave at the moment of his enjoyment of the happiness he has created for himself, Jack Nicholson appears to himself to have nothing to show for having lived the dream for all those years with the Woodmen and nothing to look forward to in the life of leisure that awaits him in retirement. This is already apparent in the opening scene when we see Schmidt watching the clock in his office as five o’clock on his last day at work approaches. I’m not as a rule Jack Nicholson’s biggest fan, but the amount of acting he is able to do just with his face in this movie is an achievement of the first order — and a necessary one, given the fact that he is portraying a man as emotionally bottled up as Schmidt is. This is just one of many differences between this movie and the novel by Louis Begley on which it is theoretically based.

Indeed, I know of no other adaptation of a novel that differs so completely from its original as About Schmidt. Almost the only thing from the novel that survives into the movie is its title. Even Schmidt, its main character, is called Al or Schmidtie in the novel and Warren in the movie. The novel’s hero is a Harvard lawyer who worked for a white shoe firm in Manhattan and now lives in the Hamptons, not a fraternity man from the University of Kansas and mid-level insurance executive from Omaha like his not-quite namesake. It’s true that both men are widowers who have a daughter (Charlotte in the novel, Jeannie in the movie) about to be married to men (Randall in the movie, Jon in the novel) they don’t much care for, but even there the similarities are fewer than the differences. Al’s prospective son-in-law is another sharp-elbowed lawyer from his old firm whose Jewishness he finds obscurely troubling, while Warren’s is a thick-witted waterbed salesman from Denver whose unattractiveness as a son-in-law — together with that of his entire family as his prospective relations — is only too obvious.

The two men themselves are quite different as well. Louis Begley’s Al Schmidt is rather a sexual adventurer and a practised seducer who has a fling with his daughter’s prospective mother-in-law as well as a 20-year-old half Puerto Rican waitress who is a much more important character in the book than that Schmidt’s priggish, selfish and unsympathetic daughter, Charlotte. Messrs Payne and Taylor’s Warren Schmidt, by contrast, is a sexual innocent who makes an awkward and rejected pass at a woman he has just met and runs in panic from the sexual suggestiveness of his daughter’s mother-in-law, Roberta, played unforgettably by Kathy Bates. His daughter Jeannie, played by Hope Davis, is not quite so unsympathetic as is Charlotte in the novel, partly because her estrangement from her father is a bit more understandable and appears to have something to do with his emotionally withholding nature.

Paradoxically, the novel is in some ways more cinematic, as we have come to understand the term in recent years anyway, than the movie. It has so much to do with the theme of Schmidt’s self-discovery through sex that it comes perilously close to being a middle-aged male wish-fulfilment fantasy — the kind of thing we would expect more from schlocky and commercial Hollywood than a genteel lawyer-novelist and Harvard man like Louis Begley. The great, the wonderful irony of the movie, of which there is no hint in the book, is that there turns out to be more love, more truth, more self-discovery in Schmidt’s emotional repression — which is presumably what has created the distance between him and his daughter — than there is in the gloriously vulgar emotional self-indulgence of the Hertzel family into which she is marrying so much against his will.

Warren Schmidt’s speech at the wedding reception near the end of the film is to me one of the great moments in cinematic history — right up there with the laughter of Curtin and Howard at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre — because we know that, while every word of it is untrue to his real feelings, it is exactly the right thing for him to do. It also goes against the grain of its star, who made his reputation as an actor by being a “My Way” kind of guy. In one of the deleted scenes you can watch on the DVD, Mr Payne even included a sly allusion to his confrontation with a waitress in one of the most famous moments of Five Easy Pieces, Mr Nicholson’s breakthrough film of 1970, only this time his character has meekly to accept the waitress’s dictum that there are “no substitutions” allowed. So, too, does the picture go against the grain of the whole Hollywood movie culture and its long-running romance with personal authenticity and raw feeling. For once we’re not allowed the easy satisfaction of a hero who bends the world to his will and instead find one whose acceptance of his own inability to change anything is much harder to bear and maybe even more impressive because it is closer to our own experience of things.

At any rate, his hero’s passivity is all the more impressive because Alexander Payne has led us to expect something quite different. After Schmidt’s epiphany under the stars on top of his Winnebago, he says he feels like a man transformed. At last, he says, he knows what he wants, what he has to do, and he insists that nothing can stop him. The moment of emotional liberation from a lifetime of repression — the moment, in short, that we have come to expect from Hollywood movies — has finally arrived. What could possibly follow but another movie-affirmation of the great American quest for personal authenticity? Yet, instead, the movie celebrates, of all things, repression and good manners, while authenticity comes off as being cheap, self-indulgent and even (dare one say it?) inauthentic — in, for instance, the self-written and cringe-making wedding vows of Jeannie and her dull-witted, mullet-headed Randall, played by Dermot Mulroney, or of randy Roberta’s unlovely and unresolved anger towards her second ex-husband, Larry, played by Howard Hesseman.

The wedding reception near the end of the movie acts as a bookend with Warren’s retirement party near the beginning. There, the authentic-inauthentic is represented by Ray (Len Cariou), Schmidt’s best friend, who gives voice to the conventional piety that we all think we subscribe to and that repudiates the shockingly cynical and subversive advertising notion that money buys happiness. Ray gives a maudlin speech about how none of the money his friend has made or can expect to spend for his own enjoyment in retirement, nor the gifts he has received in honor of it nor the celebratory dinner are of the slightest importance. “None of these superficialities mean a god damn thing,” he bellows. Then, continuing tipsily and tautologically, he pronounces:

What means something, what really means something, Warren, is the knowledge that you devoted your life to something — meaningful. To being productive, and working for a fine company, hell, one of the top-rated insurance carriers in the nation, to raising a fine family, to building a fine house, to being respected by your community, to having wonderful, lasting friendships. At the end of his career, if a man can look back and say: “I did it, I did my job,” then he can retire in glory and enjoy riches far beyond the monetary kind. So, all you young people here, take a good look at a very rich man.

Yeah, yeah. Ray’s speech reminds us of Harry Bailey’s calling his big brother George, played by Jimmy Stewart, “the richest man in town” in It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr Waterbury’s definition of “success” in Christmas in July — “if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye” — and it is similarly difficult to dismiss, I think, as merely sentimental humbug. Yet it does manage to strike several false notes in its context. Neither the “fine family” nor the respect of the community nor the “wonderful, lasting friendships” are what they seem to be and, although the Woodmen of the World may be a fine company, it has no further use for Warren Schmidt now that he has been turned out to pasture. His self-assessment as a failure in the final moments of the film — “there’s just no getting around it,” he says, anymore than there is the death that he foresees for himself — has much more the ring of truth to it. So far, at least, as the Pursuit of Happiness is concerned, Warren Schmidt is one of those who would seem to have been left behind in the chase.

Another point of contact with George Bailey is that he dreams of great achievements, “I thought that I might be special, that somehow destiny had tapped me to be a great man. Not like Henry Ford or Walt Disney or somebody like that but somebody, you know, semi-important.” When he finally pronounces himself a failure it is in the context of his contrasting his life with that of the pioneers, whose museum he visits at Ft. Kearney, Nebraska, on the way back from Denver and the debacle of Jeannie’s wedding. Here, however, there’s no heart-warming scene under the Christmas tree to show us that he was wrong and that he was really a big success. All there is is the letter from Sister Nadine Gautier in Tanzania and the drawing from the child Ndugu that he has sponsored through ChildReach — a real charity, by the way — for a paltry $22 a month.

But, of course, the point is that that’s not nothing, any more than Schmidt’s remaining true to his stuffy, bourgeois sense of good manners and good taste at Jeannie’s wedding or his self-examination on the roof of the Winnebago is nothing. Ndugu becomes the essential non-present presence in the film, the recurring reminder that Schmidt’s America and its successes and failures, its joys and sorrows exist on a different plane altogether from much of the rest of the world, by whose standards success and failure must have very different meanings. Paradoxically, Ndugu reminds us of the American Dream, with which both Warren Schmidt and ourselves have such an ambivalent relationship, by being so impossibly far removed from it. Ndugu is also what keeps this movie from being like Babbitt or Death of a Salesman or any of the other less interesting works with which it has been — I think wrongly — compared, because he reminds us and eventually reminds Schmidt too of just how lucky we are.

I started this series by pointing out that, at least in its origins, happiness was all about luck, one old word for which was “hap.” In terms of luck, then, Schmidt is only unhappy by comparison with the “semi-important” man he once hoped to be, or perhaps those pioneers who crossed the prairies and built a nation. By comparison with Ndugu and most of his fellow Tanzanians, who remain very much off-screen, he is very happy indeed. And I don’t think it is too fanciful to think of the motto he encounters at the Ft. Kearney museum about how “only the strong survived” and “they were the pioneers” — to think of that kind of strength, I mean, as analogous to his own in being able to take what life dishes out to him without crumbling under its burdens. It’s certainly a more sober and sobering view of happiness than any we have considered so far, and some might even call it un-American, since it seems to refer us back to an older, European standard of honor or stoicism, rather than American-style dynamism and optimism that we saw in our last film and that we will see again in our next. But maybe the two things — both the courage to stand up to failure and the energy to push through to success — are not so far apart as we sometimes like to think they are. Anyway, I think you’ll enjoy the film.

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