Middle age is not for sissies. Take it from me, kids.
Even those of us who lead fairly examined lives are in for a pretty rough descent as the uphill ride starts heading down the other side of the slippery slope; those unfortunates who’ve been just going through the motions must experience the precipitous bumps and inevitable hairpin turns with precious little cushioning and even less preparation.
Two films examine spiritually empty Middle America midlife in two superficially similar sleepwalkers. Recently widowed and profoundly clueless, both men need a big wake-up call and serendipitously find exactly what they need in random encounters with unlikely and surprising foreigners. Which story has more potential power to change your possibly humdrum midlife for the better?
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In The Visitor, repressed, burnout college Econ Professor Vale is a man of surprising action and unexpected passion; while he doesn’t intentionally come to New York on a quest for love and family, deeper meaning and purpose, that is exactly what he finds there. Pulled inexorably into the considerably messy lives of others far less fortunate, we sense that Vale is finally feeling the full force of life and accident. All his years of careful analysis and caution have led him exactly nowhere; he overcomes his residual reticence and gets involved possibly for the first time in his life. His journey into life is the heartbeat of the film; the drumbeat he hears and tries to learn changes his rhythm on a molecular level. The film, too, works in a quiet and deep way, establishing an elegiac rhythm of simple human kindnesses made large by circumstance, of powerlessness in the face of maddening bureaucratic indifference, teaching lessons of tolerance and love along the way. Vale leaves his empty house and boldly steps out of his own troubled mind — choosing life, interaction and involvement over isolation, observation, and depression; he becomes a true citizen of the world, no longer a bystander.
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The Defending Champion
Walking cipher Warren Schmidt faces his unwanted retirement and existential emptiness with an unwanted Winnebago in his driveway and his unwanted wife at his side in About Schmidt. When his wife passes away and his routine is permanently disrupted, he sets off on an odyssey of sorts, ostensibly looking for meaning and purpose, company and control, but his quest isn’t introspective enough to do him much good at first. He’s looking for all the right things in all the wrong places – in his rear-view mirror and in a cloak of unconvincing self-deception. Stubborn, judgmental and essentially closed-off, his quest circles like a a carousel ride or a dog chasing its tail. He’s a bull in every china shop, incautious and something of a boor, and he’s fated to land very near the place he started. Less a character than an indictment of the middle class’s unquestioning embrace of the empty American Dream, Schmidt knows he’s missing something, and while he never fully gains the consciousness he desperately seeks, he makes a valiant attempt, mouthing all the right words of epiphany, talking the talk, sleepwalking the walk, until the final frames of the film.
Both films confound moviegoers’ expectations; typically, if there’s a lonely man and an unattached woman, they are bound to wind up in a clinch by the end titles. These films are both looser and more like life. While the movie universe is small, the romantic possibilities reduced to a movie Adam and a movie Eve, they needn’t couple off; a larger world of possibility exists outside the film, and the protagonists will travel there at film’s end. Other less predictable relationships deserve their (and our) consideration. Happy endings are hardly the point; all loose ends don’t wind up tied in prettily mathematical bows, and greater themes than Boy Meets Girl rule the day.
The protagonists in both films learn lessons that we hope they will take with them; the audience leaves imagining them leading messy but incrementally improved lives. Our concern remains unresolved; our empathy is not rewarded with hastily arrived-at tidiness. No happily ever afters, no inflated high-stakes melodramatic walks into the ocean for our heroes; instead, they muddle through and get on with their lives, hopefully enlightened and definitely touched. How this sea of change will play out is ours to ponder.
Writer director Thomas McCarthy previously wrote and directed The Station Agent (2003), another shambling story of lonely people whose lives briefly intersect. Movie rules are similarly looser there; couples and friendships form and disband with no grand design. Loneliness seems a somewhat permanent, if occasionally ameliorated, condition. We are all alone, suggest McCarthy’s two films, but we can, on occasion, make connections that last as long as they last. McCarthy makes low-key and deeply satisfying films about disparate people who form unusual (and temporary) surrogate families. Is that all there is? Perhaps. But it should suffice.
About Schmidt co-writer and director Alexander Payne is possessed of a sunnier disposition. His themes are equally profound, but his world view more upbeat and essentially comic. His other films include comedy classics Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). Even in the midst of midlife despair, his Warren Schmidt goes for broad laughs more than McCarthy’s Professor Vale does; The Visitor revolves around sadder and more resilient, resourceful, worldly folks with considerably more at stake than privileged existential despair. McCarthy respects his characters, never uses them for cheap laughs but accords them the dignity they deserve.
The Dear Ndugu letters Schmidt writes to his Tanzanian 72-cents a day foster son are at once laugh out loud funny and deeply disturbing. They bespeak a troubling lack of personal and cosmic awareness in the movie’s protagonist, a sad insistence on lying and self-deception and delusion disguised as upbeat newsy narrative. Schmidt is an actuary by trade but a used car salesman by disposition, peddling his failure as success and his sadness as well-being. Schmidt suffers a weird disability not to see what is glaringly apparent to all of us – that his (and by extension, all of our) middle class problems amount to nothing when reported in ridiculous detail to a struggling Tanzanian six year old. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s admonition to: “Eat your vegetables; children are starving in India.” That global perspective never quite fully lands for Schmidt until the final moment of the film; he uses Ndugu as wordless therapist, the unresponsive repository for his lifetime of longing and emptiness, his “problems” and observations reported fully, unrecognized and unappreciated blessings every one. He spills his guts and gains himself a sort of selfishly spiritual absolution.
Schmidt’s grasping for meaning though his paltry and ill-aimed charitable gesture and unconscious spew of foster fatherhood is exploitation of the worst kind. The characters in the film are displayed like butterflies stuck on straight pins, without real sympathy or fellow feeling; the tone shifts unevenly from social satire to broad comedy to bittersweet melodrama. Even the wedding singers are pitchy, untalented and average-looking, all the haircuts tragically comic, all the interior décor a few ladder rungs below tasteful. Schmidt, too, is alienated from people, tone deaf to social cues, an uneasy rider, his heart gone missing after years of light usage. Unfortunately, the filmmaker shares his insensitivity, an anthropologist’s detachment from the goings-on. There is something uncomfortable happening here.
The supporting casts in both films are uniformly excellent; their well-drawn characters inhabit layered and complex worlds full of history and rich with detail. Schmidt’s prickly and difficult daughter is acted by the always watchable Hope Davis, an unfortunate mullet all but obscures the usually hunky Dermot Mulroney, and Kathy Bates does her usual good work as his hippy (in more ways than one) mother. The Visitor features relative newcomers Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.
Professor Vale of The Visitor is beautifully played by Richard Jenkins, most familiar to audiences as the sad-sack, lovelorn gym boss of Burn After Reading and as Nathaniel Fisher, the dead patriarch of HBO’s Six Feet Under. Richard Jenkins has a face that comes with its own history; looking in his doleful eyes, we can easily imagine his high school years. Those acne scars and baleful gaze don’t hint at an easy ride — no senior yearbook’s Most Popular, no letter sweater, no notched bedpost of countless cheerleader conquests. Middle age suits him perfectly; he was born to it and has finally come into himself, ready only now to play a laconic yet heroic leading role. Jenkins’ pockmarked face with its balding pate is familiar to moviegoers but not iconic; if you bumped into him somewhere, you’d be more likely to recognize him as someone you know from your life, not the silver screen. Nicholson comes with entirely different baggage; we know his history, on and off the screen, intimately. That too-familiar arching eyebrow adulterates his everyman emptiness and obliterates sincerity, lending his struggling heartfelt stabs at communication the equivalent of air quotes. Jack personifies sarcasm. Bad combover or no, this actor has real trouble flying under our radar; he has never underplayed or gone unnoticed; his Schmidt the Everyman is inflated and derailed with our knowledge that Jack is Jack. He’s not going home alone; he’s courtside at the Lakers game, wearing shades and heckling frontrow at the Academy Awards, the winking satyr squiring ever younger women. We don’t know where Richard Jenkins heads after work; we suspect it well might be a sad little apartment in New York or a lonely little house upstate somewhere. These undercurrents of empathy matter in our experience of the film. (Imagine watching About Schmidt recast with an actor like Richard Jenkins. I suspect a much-harder-to-finance but far more moving enterprise would result.)
A slightly desultory rant on Unnecessary Movie Nudity: Call me a prude, but nudity always takes me out of the movie at least momentarily and plunges me headlong onto the set and into the decidedly unsought position of unwilling and awkward voyeur. The very best actor in the world can’t act nude as anyone but themselves, and some nude scenes have scarred me for life, have etched themselves permanently into my retinas, their ghostly after-images unwelcome players in the slideshow that plays in my head when I’d rather be sleeping. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean: Diane Keaton’s much-heralded full-frontal moment in “Something’s Gotta Give” was hardly the food of nightmares, but I’d rather not have witnessed it on the big screen. Ken Davitian’s name may not ring any bells, but I’m betting that you’ll never be able to forget his nude wrestling scene with Borat, hard as you try.
Kathy Bates’ gratuitous hot-tubbing flash didn’t warp me nearly so deeply, but I frankly would have preferred the airline-sanitized version. Something in me bridles when an actor’s girth is used to evoke laughter; this echoes playground era cruelty and strikes me as unfair and beneath us as a species. My heart goes out to the (in this case, willing) object of ridicule, and I am again forced out of the movie’s reality and into other murkier moral territory. (The Golden Globes folks thoroughly disagree with me; Hollywood’s Foreign Press Corps likes their nudity. Kathy Bates won for flashing, and Kate Winslet won for her blithely un-self-conscious nudity –and presumably her acting as well – in this year’s “The Reader.” Maybe the Globes in Golden Globes is a sort of code. This code doesn’t seem to work for men; at least, the Globes ignored Mr. Davitian’s scathingly memorable clothing-optional romp through a hotel and into an elevator as well as Harvey Keitel’s feckless forays into full frontal.
As further proof, “Boogie Nights” won an acting trophy for the casually nude Julianne Moore and the fully clothed Burt Reynolds, not the prosthetically enhanced Mark Wahlberg.) Honestly, it’s hard enough looking at my own reflection and watching the real life people I know and love as our flesh betrays us, losing battle after battle to gravity and the other cruel forces of time and mortality. I’d rather leave my mental movie stars clothed and in the bloom of relative youth and modesty, thank you very much. Take that, Movie Powers That Be. Laud your thespians for something other than midlife bravery and indecent exposure. Everybody just keep your clothes on and nobody will get hurt.
Seventy-two cents a day is simply not enough change. Sorry, Mr. Schmidt. We can do more. And we must. The Visitor is touching and intelligent, a sensitive, shocking, and surprising story of people whose lives have real resonance and relevance. It’s a big world, and while we may play small parts in that world, it is absolutely imperative that we all do our utmost to make our world a better place. As President Obama takes office and the whole world turns the page, we could do far worse than to follow the example of The Visitor. Beat that drum, whatever rhythm you hear, and march on into a glorious future of limitless potential. Wake up. Be the change.