Anchored to a solid Jack Nicholson performance — one that is strangely like a 65-year-old take on Adam Sandler’s character in Punch-Drunk Love — and fleshed out with clever characterizations from Hope Davis, June Squibb and, especially, Kathy Bates, About Schmidt is a movie that ought to be a hands-down winner. And it very nearly is.
There is, however, an air of smug superiority pervading the screenplay by director Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor. With the exception of the title role of Schmidt (Nicholson), all of the characters are observed with an almost clinical detachment, and made into figures of absurdity. Schmidt himself is absurd, but he’s given inner dialogues in his letters to (of all people) a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy he’s “adopted” for $22 a month, and these internal discussions both flesh him out and make him that much more absurd.
Strangely enough, in adapting Louis Begley’s novel, Payne and Taylor have moved the setting from New York to Nebraska — the very part of the world they hail from. With this in mind, you’d think they’d evidence some fondness for the inhabitants; but no, everyone in the film’s Omaha is little more than a variant on a generic Boobus Americanus — what Preston Sturges, to whom Taylor is often compared, liked to call “sucker sapiens.”
While it’s not uncommon to find filmmakers mining their own backgrounds in this manner, it is both unusual and unsatisfactory when they do so with no sense of bemused fondness. And that’s the case here. Apparently, no one in Omaha is able to see anything ironic in the bland existence the film maps out for them. This results in a one-sided movie that seems like a throwback to some shallow satire of American culture from the 1960s. The world being made sport of then existed, just as the world of Schmidt exists now, but it’s neither the whole picture of that world, nor is that all there is to even the movie’s small microcosm of it.
This is still a worthy film — and one that is unflinching in its portrayal of what can happen when a man of 65 starts examining his life. It’s a departure for Nicholson, who eschews nearly every one of his trademark affectations (I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the film is accompanied by the trailer for Anger Management, with its traditional Mephistopheles Jack, which only throws his departure in Schmidt into sharper relief.) I don’t think it’s the finest performance of Nicholson’s career; that’s an easy generality to make when a movie star departs from the personality he’s built a career on, and it’s a notion that never considers the equal or greater accomplishment of creating a believable, moving character within the confines of that established personality.
However, Warren Schmidt is a fascinating creation that owes much of his appeal to the fact that Nicholson is playing him. And the portrayal’s emotional resonance stems from the fact that this is Jack Nicholson — an iconic actor we’ve known for 40 years. Nicholson is not an “everyman” and never will be, but our history with him makes it impossible for us not to inventory our own life journeys and ravages of age against his own. When Nicholson’s character talks about not recognizing the person he’s become, complains about hair sprouting in strange places and veins popping up on his ankles, he inevitably connects with us in a way that a less familiar actor might not. Schmidt’s aging is brought closer to home through an actor we know so well and have known so long.
As Nicholson’s character sifts through his post-retirement life, finding that his years as an insurance actuary meant little or nothing (even to the company he worked for), wondering who is this strange woman next to him in bed (his wife of 42 years) and finally opting, on the death of his wife, to try to make a difference by thwarting the marriage of his daughter (Hope Davis) to a balding waterbed salesman with a mullet haircut (Dermot Mulroney), he speaks to us all. That’s the greatness of About Schmidt: There isn’t one moment of its humor that isn’t grounded in pain — Schmidt’s and our own.
What doesn’t work is that Schmidt has to wander through a collection of easy-target plastic characters to convey his pain. Even the character played by Kathy Bates — complete with her much-touted nude scene — is only given the illusion of reality. She’s funny and outrageous and likable as a highly-sexed Bohemian who seems to keep a variey of ex-husbands, boyfriends and hangers-on in her sphere, but the film errs badly in giving her so much confidence in her waterbed-salesman son. It’s difficult to believe that she raised this character, much less that she can’t see him for what he is.
At the same time, there’s an irony in all this: Mulroney’s character is indeed pathetic, and nowhere is this more evident than in the scene where Schmidt looks around the bedroom in which Mulroney grew up — most especially at a display of prize ribbons for various competitions in which Mulroney took part. The best the fellow ever won was “honorable mention,” and most of the ribbons merely tag him as “participant.” And yet all this is displayed with great pride. Perhaps that’s as it should be, since the man looking at them may not be doing so with scorn, but with envy. After all, Mulroney’s character was at least a participant, something that Schimdt never really has been — not in his work, in his marriage, nor, until now, in his own daughter’s life.
If About Schmidt fails its subordinate characters elsewhere, in this one instance it rings so painfully true as to completely justify itself.