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About Schmidt
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, Howard Hesseman, Len Cariou and June Squibb
Director: Alexander Payne
Scriptwriters: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (from the novel by Louis Begley)
Music: Rolfe Kent
New Line Cinema
Rated: R

All director Alexander Payne (Election and Citizen Ruth) has to do is let the camera settle on Jack Nicholson, occasionally change the background shots for variety and let the actor do his thing. Nicholson is plying his trade at the top of his game. Oscar may come calling again. About Schmidt concerns how a just-retired man copes with loss. Payne assembled an exquisite cast. From Kathy Bates doing a nude scene to Hope Davis as an about-to-become bride to Dermot Mulroney as the son-in-law from Nowhereland to June Squibb as the wife who does everything for her family, About Schmidt is a microcosm of society.

The film opens in Omaha, Nebraska at 4:59 p.m. on Warren Schmidtís (Nicholsonís) retirement day. This is the end of an average insurance career and the man clearly does not want it to end. Home means a wife who rules the house and Schmidt has nothing to do. No hobbies, no friends outside his business life; what millions of retired men face and dread. Then tragedy strikes and Warren finds out just how lonely his life really is. Daughter Jeannie (Davis) is engaged to Randall (Mulroney), a waterbed salesman two beats behind the general public. There has been little bonding between father and daughter, so when he offers advice, she puts on the brakes and leaves. Warren, in a flight of fancy, after weeks of moping, sponsor a child in Tanzania through a child relief organization (voice of Angela Lansbury) and hits the highways in his Winnebago; a travelogue of the Great Plains from Omaha to Denver.

This writer had an opportunity to meet Alexander Payne in 1996 after his critically acclaimed Citizen Ruth with Laura Dern. Payne is from Omaha and comes back to Nebraska to film whenever possible. Nebraskans will recognize Johnny's Café and the Woodman of the World Insurance Building. An Alexander Payne script has comments at just the right moment, as when Nicholosn, who is trying to deter his daughter from marriage, mournfully looks at her and slyly says, "Who will take care of me?" This is the truthful, self-revelatory moment. It's all about him and his needs. The audience has left the building but the star is still waiting for applause.

Nicholson is on camera most of the time. His co-stars go in and out of scenes, but he is the anchor trying to figure out his purpose in life. Kathy Bates and Nicholson are a powerful duo. You can sense her attraction to him right away, and when she does a tasteful nude scene, there is a consummate actress in control. The other duo, if I can use that word here, is the person on the receiving end of Warren's letters to Tanzania, a six-year-old boy Warren supports on $22 a month. Warren sends letters to the child as though this was a form of therapy, and indeed, it is.

The soundtrack by Rolf Wolfe at times is solo piano as Warren drives across the flat plains. Watching cloud patterns or the wind in the fields is something of a renewal process Len Cariou, who looks like Bob Devaney, gives a retirement speech that is enough to make anyone work until they are ninety.

About Schmid__ could be titled About Us. It is a film of observation about Schmidt and ultimately, the audience. Life goes on whether we like it or not. We age, walk slower, gain weight and lose friends and family. This is the inevitable pattern. If you live outside the pattern and think it doesn't happen to you, what a rude awakening to someday find yourself firmly entrenched on the treadmill you have been on all along. A bit of The Twilight Zone, if you will. Schmidt wears his mask well, but it is beginning to slip and he doesn't like what he sees. Throughout all of his adventures, religion is not mentioned other than a short visit for grief therapy. You wonder, has Warren been a worthwhile traveler through life? Have you?

Copyright 2002 Marie Asner
Submitted 12/15/02


Jack Nicholson is no stranger to Oscar time, and I'm sure he'll be there again this year after his performance in About Schmidt. I guess that's ok, though I'm not sure the hurrahs being flung at the film are completely earned. It's a smart little movie, but maybe a little too smart.

Jack stars as the title character: Schmidt's his last name, Warren's his first. We meet Warren on his last day of work in Omaha. He's been in
insurance his whole life, and his entire output sits in boxes stacked in a corner. He's a man who's not exactly excited to be heading off into the sunny hills of retirement. If this sounds like Nicholson's last major role (The Pledge), you get a gold star for paying attention.

Unlike that movie, though, Jack's character doesn't have any unfinished business. He wishes he had, but he doesn't. So he's home with his wife, whom he merely tolerates, and he hears news of his daughter's impending marriage to a man he can't respect. When Warren's wife suddenly dies, he's confronted with the prospect of his own mortality (he's been calculating others' his whole life), and feels the need to do something meaningful. This includes deepening his relationship with his daughter, sponsoring a poor child in Africa, and traveling the country in his Winnebago.

Warren's travels are my favorite parts of the film. Here's a man who knows his life is insular but doesn't realize to what extent. So when he meets a Native American who works in a convenience store, Warren spends two hours learning about the man's past and then remarks, "Those people got a raw deal." But that doesn't stop him from popping in on a museum devoted to the settlers who pushed out those Native Americans, and saluting the former's courage and commitment. Writer and director Alexander Payne (Election) has a good feel for Midwesterners' kindness and friendliness as well as their sometimes limited frame of reference.

About Schmidt doesn't work so well, though, when Warren arrives in Denver, committed to breaking up his daughter's engagement. The always graceful Hope Davis plays the unlucky daughter, and she's fine. But Dermot Mulroney, as the potential groom, and Kathy Bates, as his mother, have the misfortune of playing some weird combination of down-home hippies. Here Payne's smartness feels a lot more like cynicism, as he takes cheap shots at everything from wedding toasts to hot tubs to Tony Roma restaurants. My friend Garth (who's been disagreeing with me a lot lately) found Payne's portrait of the Midwest to be eerily accurate, but I found it a little too harsh, a little bit smug. Payne's no longer laughing with us, he's laughing at us.

No one will be laughing at Nicholson's performance. It's strong as always and remarkably restrained. But your view of the movie will probably depend on whether the final, cathartic shot is well-earned or just an illegitimate attempt to bring some emotion to an otherwise empty landscape.   

J. Robert Parks 12/21/2002



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