Nicholson loses the schtick.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis and Kathy Bates
Jack Nicholson smiles at the end of About Schmidt, and it’s the first genuine smile he’s smiled on-screen in years. No hint of grin or leer, just a man—in this case an aging Midwestern retiree—in a moment of uninhibited emotion. It’s a surprising, moving moment from an actor who seemed long past surprising anybody. Slovenly, bloated, taking stock of his life and realizing there’s nothing on the shelves, Nicholson finally plays his age. He shows so little actorly vanity as Warren Schmidt that it’s almost vain (look at me, I’m not being Jack!), but it’s still a revelation what he can do when he bags his twinkles and tricks and disappears into a well-written role.
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s first two films, Citizen Ruth and Election, were brittle, brilliant satires of middle-American mores and politics. Schmidt is a gentler affair, a comic drama about a man. No work and no play makes Warren . . . what? He feels useless, and there’s nothing he can do about it. His wife of 42 years dies, and there’s nothing he can do about it. His daughter is engaged to a well-meaning idiot, and there’s nothing he can do about it. En roundabout route to the wedding, he pilots his RV on a voyage of self-discovery, narrating his adventures in letters to a 6-year-old African boy he’s sponsoring through a charity.
Although they slightly load the dice against Warren’s late wife and daughter (June Squibb and Hope Davis), Payne and Turner make clear that Warren’s limitations are his own, and that he is not going to suddenly, ecstatically transcend them, even when confronted with the groom’s overbearing mom (Kathy Bates, terrific and rewarded with a nude scene). The film’s bittersweet believability makes even a manipulative closing tug seem well-earned. There are no grand epiphanies here, just the small, funny, sad details of lives lived. And that’s what it’s all about.
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