There's a truly shocking moment in the comedy/drama About Schmidt: Jack
Nicholson, who plays the main character, wakes up in bed next to a woman his
own age. The image is jarring. The 65-year old Nicholson has been so
frequently paired with younger women both onscreen (Michelle Pfeiffer, Helen
Hunt) and off (Lara Flynn Boyle) that seeing him next to a same-age actress
is a jolt. Then again, Nicholson has intentionally de-Jacked himself to for
this film, and the result is a performance that ranks alongside any this
veteran actor has ever given.
We first meet Warren Schmidt on his retirement day. A long-time actuary at an Omaha insurance company called Woodmen of the World, Schmidt waits until the last second to vacate his office permanently. In the days following, he finds himself lost; the job gave him a purpose in life that he now lacks. Things become more upsetting when Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years, dies suddenly. Schmidt goes through an unusual grieving process, first revealing a never-expressed frustration with her, then missing her inconsolably, then being filled with rage upon discovery of an affair decades prior.
There are various asides in the film, as Schmidt drives from Nebraska to Colorado. He stops at different places along the way, looking for something to fill the void in his life. The movie's masterstroke is that, wherever he goes, Schmidt narrates his own story in the form of letters written to Ndugu, a 6-year old Tanzanian orphan he sponsors through a charity organization. His letters to the unseen Ndugu are often hilariously inappropriate, filled with distortions of the truth, and ultimately quite revealing.
About Schmidt is not a plot driven film. It is a more a character study about a man who loses his job and wife, then comes to the conclusion that none of it meant anything anyway. This thought throws him into a funk, as he ponders a marriage that may never have been blissful, a lifetime of hard work for which he was easily replaced. Worst of all, he thinks he sees the pattern repeating itself generationally, as Jeannie gets ready to marry this "nincompoop" from an oddball family.
Writer/director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (both of Election fame) prove themselves masters of social observation. There are a lot of people just like Warren Schmidt walking around, viewing their glasses as half-empty. There's something special in the way Payne and Taylor revel the uncomfortable moments of life. They are not afraid to make their characters feel uneasy and then watch what happens. Schmidt is never made out to be a heroic man, or even a misunderstood man. He's simply a guy who looks back over a lifetime and doesn't like what he sees. Whether he's right about that or not is up to the audience to decide. The filmmakers are more interested in how Schmidt sees himself and the choices he makes accordingly.
Jack Nicholson is perhaps the only actor who could pull this role off so perfectly. He drops all his trademarks - the sly grin, the inherent coolness - in order to make this character believable. You actually forget you're watching Nicholson after a while. Looking about as unglamorous as possible, the actor doesn't just play the role, he inhabits it - the loneliness, the desperation, the deep cynicism.the fundamental decency as well. If Nicholson has a legacy in the history of film, it is this: he has been playing memorable characters for decades. Once you have seen Jake Gittes in Chinatown, or Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or the Joker in Batman, or Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets, you don't forget them. And I have not even mentioned the characters he played in Easy Rider, Terms of Endearment, Five Easy Pieces, A Few Good Men or The Shining. Warren Schmidt is equal to any of these characters.
Nicholson understands that Schmidt is a guy with many layers. On the surface, he has it pretty good, with a long-marriage and a job he enjoys. Peel that layer away and you see the marriage was long, but not perfect; the job satisfying, but not essential. This creates a loss of identity, as his relevance in the world is called into question. Peel off another layer and you see that, whatever the faults, Schmidt really did love Helen in his own way. His job brought him satisfaction regardless of whether anyone else could do it just as well. There's a lot going on in this guy's head (some of it contradictory), and Nicholson amazingly shows you all the levels at the same time. Sometimes he doesn't even need words; the body language here conveys more than dialogue ever could.
The supporting cast matches the star's brilliance, especially Kathy Bates. She has a scene that is absolutely fearless: she appears nude, and the point of the scene is (at least partially) to get a laugh out of her less-than- youthful body. It would be giving away too much to describe her complete function in the film, but Roberta has a core of wisdom beneath her eccentric fašade. To her, anything is possible in life if you're willing to take a shot at it. Her optimism is a perfect counterpoint to Schmidt's pessimism.
Payne and Taylor fill the movie with memorable characters, as well as moments of great emotion and humor. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give them is that their film very strongly feels like real life. I admire the way About Schmidt deals with a lot of realistic issues without minimizing them. The film doesn't even try to wrap things up neatly. The ending resolves almost nothing, yet manages to pull out a sentiment that is as uplifting as it is deeply touching. A simple gesture from little Ndugu teaches Schmidt a fundamental lesson about life: it's all in how you look at it.
( out of four)
About Schmidt is rated R for language and brief nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
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