About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson is being cloaked in respectful critical and Oscar-watcher buzz for exactly the wrong performance. People are responding to his work as the retired, depressive widower Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt as if he’d never done anything like it before — as if he’d never dialed himself down and given a muted, pained performance. For that, I refer you to his outstanding work under the direction of Sean Penn: The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001), neither of which got much attention. Why here? Why this draggy, overcast, simplistic drama? Is it Nicholson’s courage in wearing his hair in a combover of such deep ugliness that it puts Peter Jackson’s Uruk-hai to shame?

Warren Schmidt, at 66, is dissatisfied with his life. You can tell because director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor make every effort to surround Warren in big, lonely spaces that still feel cramped — his suddenly half-empty house, the mammoth Winnebago he drives from Omaha to Denver for the wedding of his daughter (Hope Davis in a bad mood that seems to have carried over from Hearts in Atlantis) to a dopey mullethead (Dermot Mulroney). This trip is somewhat out of character for Warren, who’s so unaccustomed to movement that the undulations of a water bed nearly cripple him. Warren is a self-pitying lump at the center of an overlong movie that has nothing in particular to say about his plight.

Payne and Taylor previously crafted two deft, razor-sharp satires — Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) — and one wants to respond to About Schmidt as some sort of comment on the emptiness of a lifelong company man whose routine is doubly shattered when he finds himself minus an occupation and a wife. If the road trip is supposed to give Warren a sense of purpose, as a murder gave Nicholson’s retired cop in The Pledge renewed vigor, it doesn’t seem to. Warren holds everything in; the only person he opens up to is Ndugu, a six-year-old African boy he’s sponsoring by mail. Along with his $22 monthly checks, he sends letters to Ndugu in which his seething resentment of his life is at odds with the neutrally dyspeptic face he wears around everyone else.

Mostly, the satire here amounts to nudging us into feeling superior to other people’s lives. There are also crude touches like a urine motif: Warren bitterly celebrates his new independence by pissing on the toilet seat; the next time we see him relieving himself it’s after he’s made a speech of glowing tribute to the newlyweds, a lie to make his daughter happy on her wedding day. Payne’s cold eye freezes our responses when he tries for warmth. What are we supposed to make of the sexually liberated mother-of-the-groom, played by Kathy Bates in her usual let’s-cut-the-crap mode? Bates, easily the best element of the movie, represents what Warren recoils from — spontaneity, outspokenness — because he sorely lacks it, but Payne undercuts her in subtle ways by clothing her in gauche outfits, or by not clothing her at all.

Through this aimless movie drifts Nicholson, a flabby balloon full of toxic self-hate. This performance is a mere faint echo of the sharp self-loathing he lacerated us with in The Crossing Guard. Nicholson’s films with Sean Penn show him as a real actor still capable of surprise. About Schmidt is just Jack coasting in a role as tailor-made for him as the neurotic Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. You may recall that for his audience-tickling efforts in that film, Nicholson grabbed his third Oscar; he may be nominated for a fourth for the audience-reassuring Warren Schmidt, whose pain at wasting his life is vague enough not to scare anyone off and distant enough from Nicholson himself — who celebrates his forty-fifth year of film acting next year — to let us know he’s just playing a part that has nothing to do with him.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comedy, drama, overrated

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