Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 2, 2003
About Schmidt\r\nStarring Jack Nicholson. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on Louis Begley’s novel. Rated R.
Ndugu’sPen Pal

When About Schmidt runsoff the rails, Jack Nicholson keeps it real.


If the great Hollywood leading men of his generation, Jack Nicholson has acknowledged his old age through his choice of roles more freely than any of his contemporaries, even Clint Eastwood. Hackman at least proved that he could play old in The Royal Tenenbaums, but Hoffman, De Niro, Beatty, and Redford have never really tried on elderly characters, and Pacino is such a volcanic presence that it’ll probably be another decade before he can play a convincing old man. Nicholson has been as guilty as any of these stars of occasionally coasting on his presence, most notably in As Good As It Gets, for which he won an undeserved Oscar. However, in About Schmidt, he renews his credentials as a great actor with a finely calibrated, richly funny performance as a man facing his mortality as he bumbles about Middle America.

The movie is based on a novel by Louis Begley, though anyone who knows the book will scarcely recognize it here. The book’s gentlemanly, casually anti-Semitic New Jersey lawyer has been changed into a middle-class, workaholic insurance executive from Omaha named Warren Schmidt. At age 66, his life’s comfortable routine is subjected to unwelcome changes: retirement, the sudden death of his wife of 42 years (June Squibb), and the impending marriage of his daughter Jeanie (Hope Davis) to a doltish mattress salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney in a ponytail and a porn-star mustache) who tries to sell Warren on an investment opportunity. (“Everyone thinks it’s a pyramid scheme, but it’s not.”) Instead of falling in love with a much younger Puerto Rican waitress, as he does in the book, Schmidt takes to the road in the new Winnebago that his wife had been looking forward to using and encounters comic misadventures on his way to Jeanie’s wedding in Denver.

Through it all, Schmidt reflects on his life by writing letters to Ndugu, a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy whom he’s moved to sponsor after seeing a tv ad for a child relief organization. His letters, which we hear in voice-over, are extremely funny, partly because they address the kid like he’s a corporate intern (“66 probably sounds pretty old to a young fellow like yourself”) and betray a near-total lack of understanding of the boy’s situation. (“Well, you probably want to cash my check and run out and get something to eat.”) The laugh that Nicholson gets every time he begins “Dear Ndugu” is the movie’s best running joke.

Director/co-writer Alexander Payne and his collaborating writer Jim Taylor’s previous films were the 1996 abortion-debate satire Citizen Ruth and the 1999 high-school comedy Election. All their films are set in Nebraska, and they know how to fire off quotable one-liners in the Midwestern patois. There’s so much to admire in Payne’s filmmaking. His eye for realistic detail is balanced by his love of kitsch and a gift for outrageous satire. He has exquisite comic timing, and he uses camera angles and framing to get laughs. He shifts tones beautifully. He knows the power of understatement (check the way his camera discreetly finds somewhere else to look when Schmidt finds his wife dead).

Yet for all of Payne and Taylor’s sundry talents, About Schmidt carries the same whiff of condescension toward their characters as their other films. The movie flattens out when Schmidt reaches Denver and meets Randall’s family, who live (and particularly eat) like pigs. We’re left to gawk along with Schmidt at their abysmal taste: the peeling paint on their junk-covered front porch, Randall’s hideous tuxedo, the shrill soprano singing Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” at the wedding ceremony. There’s no affection in the filmmakers’ treatment of these in-laws from hell. Schmidt is most often in the company of Randall’s mother (Kathy Bates), who gives away too much information about her sex life and relentlessly puts down her gushy ex-husband (Howard Hesseman). Bates kicks up her heels and very nearly makes the character credible, but when the filmmakers have her come on to Schmidt by stripping off her clothes and getting into a hot tub with him, it just feels like they’re making a huge fat joke at a very fine actress’ expense. The movie tries to balance its satire with an affirmative ending, but it only succeeds in going gooey and sentimental, in a non-Hollywood way.

Still, no matter how cartoonish the movie gets, Nicholson’s performance remains stubbornly real. Much of the comedy here comes from our anticipation of the Nicholson attitude: Schmidt gets pushed to his limit several times, and we think we’re going to see the eyebrow go up and demonic energy come bursting out of him. It doesn’t happen, though it comes close early on when Schmidt writes his first letter to Ndugu and goes off on the idiot who replaced him at work. In the hands of a lesser actor, the naïve Schmidt might have become as much of a caricature as everyone else in the movie, but Nicholson locates this stolid, colorless man’s melancholy resignation to his life’s various failures and makes this Everyman a touching figure. Whatever shortcomings his film might have, Alexander Payne has inspired Jack Nicholson to his best performance since the 1970s. That’s pretty big.

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