About Schmidt (November 26/02)
In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays a man his age. It may not sound like a big deal, but when most older actors saddle themselves with much younger women, it's certainly a refreshing thing to see a legendary actor like Nicholson paired with a woman who's around his age.
As the movie opens, Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is literally seconds away from retirement. Clad in a plain suit and sporting a conservative haircut, Schmidt has that look about him; he's been at this job for many years and his impending retirement isn't necessarily something for him to look forward to. His wife of 42 years, Helen (June Squibb), has a cross-country expedition planned for the two of them in their new deluxe camper - but Warren isn't exactly keen on the idea, since it would mean spending every waking hour with his wife (something he's never done). But that's rendered moot after Helen suddenly dies, and Warren is faced with the prospect of living in his big house alone. After a visit from his daughter (Hope Davis) and her fiancée (Dermot Mulroney), Warren decides to commandeer the camper and head across the country to help with their wedding. Along the way, he meets up with a variety of quirky folks.
About Schmidt's been written by Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne (and directed by Payne), the same guys who made Citizen Ruth and Election. Those two films were a little too offbeat for their own good; the respective stories took a back seat to establishing eccentric characters and developing a smarmy world view. The first third of About Schmidt finally marks a step towards realism for the two, rather than cynical and detached smugness. Schmidt is a completely compelling character, realistic to the point where we truly do feel a certain amount of sympathy for the man (his wife's dead, his daughter doesn't seem to like him all that much, he feels he's wasted his life, etc). And though his relationship with a third-world child that he's "adopted" could've been schmaltzy and over-the-top, his correspondence with little Ndugu allows Warren the chance to reflect on his life (and winds up providing us with a glimpse into his thoughts, as the letters are heard in voice-over).
But the movie loses its way after Warren departs on his road trip. About Schmidt stops being about Warren's life, and turns into a series of vignettes presumably designed to show the viewer how normal Schmidt is in comparison to some of these people. There's one particularly pointless detour involving Warren and an ultra-enthusiastic couple he meets at a motor home rest stop. After spending some time alone with the woman, a gregarious and friendly type, he awkwardly hits on her and is quickly asked to leave. This vignette does show Schmidt's need to be understood and loved, but it goes on much longer than it should - when all we really want is for Schmidt to get back on the road.
About Schmidt works best when it deals with Schmidt himself; as played by Nicholson, he's one of the most compelling characters to come around in a while (and Nicholson's performance is certainly up there with his best). He's a man that's devoted his life to his family and his job, and now - stripped of both - he has to find his own identity. It's a great concept for a film, especially in this era of youth-oriented product, but Payne's made the decision to use that concept as a springboard into something a little goofier and eccentric. Still, the film's got a great supporting cast (Mulroney delivers yet another scene-stealing performance and Bates' contribution will probably be buzzed about for a while) and Nicholson's sure to garner an Oscar nomination for his work, which means the movie's entertaining at the very least.
*** out of ****
© David Nusair 2002