Films exist for different reasons, and the indisputable raison d’etre for “About Schmidt” is to showcase Jack Nicholson giving a master class in the art of screen acting. A bit slack in its first half before erupting into some fine character-based hilarity in the latter-going, Alexander Payne’s look at an ordinary man’s late-life crisis lacks the sharp satiric kick of his earlier efforts, especially “Election,” but is marked by knowing observations about the Midwestern middle class and a generally sagacious posture. Pic will be a tricky sell for New Line, which will have to get out the word about the film’s comic content as well as to emphasize that this is one of Nicholson’s major performances.
Script by Payne and Jim Taylor, which reps a synthesis of a script the former wrote years ago and an adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel, examines a man at the crossroads as he passes from a productive working life into potentially bleak retirement.
Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) has worked as an actuary for a big insurance company in Omaha for his entire career and now, at 66, is being put out to pasture. He has no particular plans other than to drive around in the enormous motor home he’s bought at his wife’s insistence.
While he’s not exactly bitter about his circumstances, he’s not really happy either; everything wife Helen (June Squibb) does and says bugs him, and he disapproves of the man whom his only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), is about to marry.
Opening reels are graced with insights into the traditional lifestyle in Omaha (Payne’s hometown and the location of all of his films to date) and Schmidt’s moderate disenchantment is expressed in quiet ways that indicate his need to escape. These include his ducking out of his hale-and-hearty retirement party to have a drink alone at the bar, secretly foster parenting an African orphan with whom he begins a correspondence, and popping into a fast food joint just to slightly prolong his time away from Helen.
Suddenly, however, Helen dies of a blood clot while cleaning the house. In a daze throughout the funeral period, Schmidt badgers Jeannie, who has come in from Denver with her fiance Randall (Dermot Mulroney), to stay a little longer and to consider postponing her wedding. But Jeannie resists all of her father entreaties, leaving him of a mind “to make the most of the time I have left.”
His first move is to let the immaculate house go completely to seed. And when he finds some incriminating letters revealing a long-ago indiscretion between Helen and his best friend, he clears her things out of the house and sets off in earnest to torpedo Jeannie’s wedding plans, a visit she manages to postpone until the weekend of the event.
Schmidt has felt all along that Randall, who works a low-end job as a waterbed salesman and sports a Fu Manchu moustache and long ponytail that are hilariously declasse, isn’t good enough for his daughter, that he’s not “up to snuff.”
He finds out why when he arrives in Denver and meets the young man’s family, a motley crew whose antics send the picture into a major comic upswing. Giving Nicholson a run for his money here is Kathy Bates, who is sensationally funny and on the money as an aging flower child and earth mother who’s twice divorced and has no shortage of opinions on every topic.
Her startlingly upfront nude scene, in which she joins Schmidt in her Jacuzzi in attempt to nail husband No. 3, is something no audience would ever have expected to see, and it’s funny as hell.
Just as the film starts with the ceremonial event of Schmidt’s retirement dinner, it dramatically concludes with Jeannie’s wedding and reception, at which Schmidt is expected to give a speech.
All along Nicholson has provided an open window into this man, one like so many in that he had youthful ambitions to accomplish more than he actually did but who settled into a quietly productive conventional life dictated by the need to provide for a family. His marriage wasn’t the greatest, the nagging frustrations have presumably always been there, but never bad enough for him to overhaul everything.
Nicholson has plenty of opportunities to indicate his superiority to the character he’s playing by indulging in his specialties of sarcastic line readings and squinty looks of disgust. But he resists them all, very subtly suggesting Schmidt’s scorn and irritations but never losing his grip on the man’s bedrock decency and solidity.
When it comes time for the big speech, Nicholson makes the man’s temptation to say what’s really on his mind vividly palpable, his acute desire to tell the assembled crowd what mutts and bozos and under-achievers they are almost but not quite overtaking his instincts as a gentleman and a human being. Nicholson’s solo verbal dance during this sequence is remarkable, as his naked emotionalism just before fadeout.
Davis has to work with the liability of her character’s unvarying disagreeable resistance to her father as her prime attribute, while Mulroney is gamely willing to be the butt of considerable disparaging humor.
The pic has a plain look, much of this deriving from the overwhelmingly grayish landscapes and pointedly mundane interior settings. Visual strategies are straightforward, although there is one stunning shot in which Jeannie emerges from an out-of-focus mass of passengers disembarking from a plane to greet her father after her mother’s death.