About Schmidt

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley
Starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Bates

Rated R; 124 minutes

The rap on Jack Nicholson, at least recently, has been that "he always just plays Jack." In other words, that the Lakers-game-attending, Lara-Flynn-Boyle-doing movie star known as Jack Nicholson outshines any role he could possibly play, any acting he still might bother to do beyond a strategic raise of the eyebrows here and there.

It's a nice theory, and there's no question that Jack is undeniably a movie star, but he is still an actor. ("I'm not an actor. I'm a movie star!" proclaimed Peter O'Toole's Alan Swann in My Favorite Year, and everybody knew exactly what he meant.) But in fact, Nicholson may be giving too good a performance in About Schmidt.

It's too good in the sense that Jack has effectively shrunken his persona to fit the blinkered, conservative worldview of Warren Schmidt, a just-retired Midwestern insurance executive who, after years of unreflective, uninspired living, is trying to at last make some connections that feel real. And while this is a potentially fascinating, potentially very funny concept, it drags along, at least for its first hour, as slowly as an actual insurance executive's retirement dinner.

The dullness is disappointing, especially considering the filmmakers' previous feature was the mean-spirited but sprightly satire Election. That movie not only beautifully balanced goody-goody Reese Witherspoon with earnest knucklehead Matthew Broderick, it allowed the audience to catch up with all the characters' foibles and self-delusions. About Schmidt hammers us over the head with the characters' silly self-importance from the start. Director Alexander Payne and his co-screenwriter Jim Taylor compare Schmidt visually to a prize cow being put out to pasture; they trap him in visual frames; and they repeatedly show him waking up from sleep (with the joke being that no matter how many times he wakes up, he's still not really awake - get it?).

In other words, we're never allowed to discover Schmidt's limitations on our own, because they're being so pointedly pointed out to us.

There's nothing technically wrong with Nicholson's performance, and he does find some good moments that express his surprise at being so alone, so vulnerable and so unable to affect the world around him.

And thank goodness for the actresses Payne has chosen (his work with actors overall - including stage veterans Len Cariou and Harry Groener - is pitch-perfect, even if his conceptions of the characters are limited). Hope Davis as Schmidt's exasperated, resentful daughter, about to get married to a ponytailed yutz (Dermot Mulroney), just can't believe that her father picks RIGHT NOW to start getting interested in her life. Where was he when she was growing up? Probably working late at the office on a tricky actuarial table.

And Kathy Bates, god bless her, plays the mother of the groom as a woman totally without any kind of boundaries, who will as quickly inform you about the details of her hysterectomy as tell you the time of day. Her rampant narcissism and indestructible good cheer make the second half of the movie a lot more interesting than the first, which is mostly concerned with Schmidt discovering how empty his life actually is after the sudden death of his wife (June Squibb). Bates also shares a hot tub with Jack, and there's some discreet nudity that's not only totally appropriate for the character but a lively jolt to the proceedings.

As conceived and directed, Schmidt has too tiny a soul for his lack of understanding to be a tragedy, yet the film isn't quite comfortable as the type of all-out comedic satire that Election turned out to be. Even at the movie's end, when Schmidt believes he's made the tiniest bit of difference in the world - and Nicholson tempts us to care about Schmidt with a bit of honest sentiment - Payne can't let go of the mocking tone. But if Schmidt is just a self-deluded fool, what does it say about us that we have spent two hours with him? Isn't there anything admirable in the fact that he makes an effort? The choice that Payne seems to present to the audience is to either feel smug and superior, or to be as big a dope as Schmidt. Not a pretty set of options.

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