Jack Nicholson stars in "About Schmidt" and gives a devastating portrait of an average man. The actor is in almost every frame of the film and is often asked to carry entire scenes with just his famously expressive face. That face, which has always dared you to see what he's got up his sleeve, will bring enough people to the theater to keep this small, personal movie from falling through the cracks. Nicholson is a mortal lock to receive an Oscar nomination and until further notice I'm going to be rooting for him to win.
Yet as good as Nicholson is, it's entirely possible that "About Schmidt" would be as good, or better, with another actor in the lead. Maybe even a complete unknown. Writer/Director Alexander Payne has cast a lot of unfamiliar faces in this film, some of them plucked from obscurity in the Omaha location where "About Schmidt" lives and breathes. And there are times when these unknown actors, going toe to toe with Jack Nicholson, appear to be schooling both the Hollywood legend and his quietly distraught character on how to keep it real. When you finally accept Nicholson playing a bland, innefectual 66 year old man who sleeps with a lumpy 66 year old woman, a man who it turns out has nothing up his sleeve, you start to appreciate what Alexander Payne has done. He's made a supremely confident and richly entertaining comedy about people we tend to ignore and things we'd rather not think about.
Based very loosely on the novel by Louis Begley, Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor have moved the story from Manhattan to Payne's native Nebraska, where Warren Schmidt is watching the last seconds tick away on his last day as an insurance executive. He politely endures the retirement dinner in his honor before slipping off to the bar to drink alone. You don't need to tell a man who’s been a professional actuary that today is the first day of the rest of your life. He knows exactly how short life is. And the subtle indignities of retirement only serve to make him wonder if his life has made any difference at all. Thus he is especially vulnerable to a infomercial that promises his check for 22 dollars a month would make a world of difference to an orphan in Africa. His sponsorship packet encourages Warren to write a letter to his orphan, a 6 year old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. And this launches a handy and amusing device for giving the laconic Warren Schmidt an inner monologue throughout the movie.
When Schmidt's wife dies suddenly, the only thing left in his increasingly meaningless life is his only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who has moved to Denver and is about to marry a mullet-haired waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney). Warren seizes on his purpose in life, and that's to stop the wedding. This is the stuff of middle-brow comedy, but Payne takes several exploratory detours before dropping Warren in the middle of his future in-laws, including Kathy Bates in a terrific turn as a comfortably oversexed bohemian.
Payne and Taylor have a wonderful knack for common language and people, and the mere act of filmming them has a way of making the very real seem surreal. Payne appears to be directing the movie from a mixer board, gently modulating the levels of pathos, humor, sentimentaily, plus the occasional satirical goosing, without ever sending the needle in the red. Like Payne's other films, the abortion comedy "Citizen Ruth" and the near flawless "Election", "About Schmidt" has a deceptive amiability. Someone once said that satire should wound like a polished razor, barely felt or seen, and in the very final seconds of "About Schmidt" - a dangerously sentimental moment - you realize just how deep the movie actually cuts.
Yes, it's definitely worth watching "About Schmidt" to see Jack Nicholson. But the one to keep your eye on is Alexander Payne.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 12/02
U.S. - 2002