The need for a Smackdown between writer/director Alexander Payne’s earlier effort About Schimidt and his Oscar nominated The Descendants is so obvious that we just can’t let the final days before the Academy Awards go by without making it.
After all, both films are anchored by a central character who’s lost or is losing his wife and comes to realize that the woman he’s spent his married life with had gotten away with cheating on him without him knowing it (and probably deserving it). Both set out on quests to try to make meaning of this adultery, end up confronting the cheaters (because they can’t confront the wives) and forgive them, and try to re-connect with the daughters they’ve ignored.
These are pretty significant performances we’re talking about — Jack Nicholson playing Warren Schmidt and George Clooney playing Matt King. They’re both troubled guys, standing at the crossroads, full of regrets, realizing their mistakes, and hoping for a dose of redemption.
Both films are chock-full of voice-over about those feelings. About Schmidt uses Schmidt’s insanely honest-sounding dishonest letters to an African child Ndugu he’s sending $22 a month to while The Descendants uses King’s excessive and obsessive inner thoughts. Honestly, both films could probably have done nicely without them.
Payne talked about his characters this way in an interview with The New York Times.
I’m getting a lot the question, ‘Why are you so interested in flawed protagonists?’ I scratch my head at that, because I think: Aren’t all protagonists in literature and cinema flawed? The interesting ones, anyway? Oedipus. Othello. Michael Corleone.
Being brutally honest here, Schmidt and King are never going to have their names uttered in that company again by anyone other than the director of the films they’re in.
Our own Art Tiersky wrote a great Smackdown between The Descendants and The Boys Are Back and had this to say about this year’s nominated Payne effort:
Whereas, The Descendants, I’m pleased to report, is quite deserving of all the hype it’s getting as one of the year’s best films. It’s also a welcome return for director/co-writer Alexander Payne, who tends to take his time between features, this being only his fifth in 15 years, but the results have generally been worth the wait (2002’s sluggish and mean-spirited About Schmidt being the sole disappointment). This one is arguably his best yet.
A couple of years earlier, Sherry Coben wrote this wonderful insight into the Schmidt character in her Smackdown between The Visitor and About Schmidt:
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.
As you can probably infer (although you should read both Smackdowns for their sheer literacy), Payne got out of his two cage matches here with a split decision.
But how about Payne versus Payne?
About Schmidt has its moments, for sure. Re-watching it, I found more to like than the first time, but there are few laughs, really, and they don’t come until Kathy Bates hits the screen. Neither film is about the laughs, of course, but The Descendants feels looser, like the slack-key guitar vibe of its Hawaiian setting. This year’s film from the House of Payne is just way, way more commercial for reasons of setting, youth and Clooney charm.
The way I see it, About Schmidt was Payne’s dry run in this thematic world, and it’s not good enough to beat the good, but not great, The Descendants. And neither of those movies is better than his other films Election and, particularly, Sideways.
The real question, however, is whether The Descendants can win the ultimate Smackdown with The Artist on Sunday night. I don’t think it deserves to, and it’s not likely that it will.