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Wednesday, June 4, 2003

It's much ado about nothing

About Schmidt

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Alexander Payne
Running time: 125 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

"About Schmidt" is often too painful to watch. A 66-year-old newly retired insurance actuary in Omaha, Neb., has nothing to do and is bored stiff with his life and his wife of 42 years, and that hurts. The bizarre thing is that Jack Nicholson, that powerhouse of perverse wit and raunchy energy, is in this role. Quite possibly this is the first time in his career that he's been paired off with an old, unattractive woman, surrounded by colorless buddies and allotted sweats as his wardrobe. How could this be?

News photo
Dermott Mulroney, Hope Davis and Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt"

I kept waiting to see a Hollywood stop sign on the broad, flat, Omaha landscape that would enable Nicholson -- as Schmidt -- to switch lanes and be his usual self: have an affair with younger woman, accidentally get mixed up in Mexican drug deal, rediscover love in marriage and open Italian restaurant. Alas, nothing of the sort happens. Warren Schmidt just vegetates in front of the TV, then goes out (alone) to the mall for a sundae. Extra nuts, please.

Nicholson curbs his killer instincts and tranquilizes himself into playing Schmidt, but often his screen character isn't large enough to control the energy of his own persona. The trademark devilish grin and raised eyebrows make fleeting appearances, and when they do, the frame seems on the verge of detonating. In comparison, the rest of the cast fit nice and snug into the landscape, making Nicholson appear as though he crashed the wrong party on another planet, one populated by: Schmidt's dowdy, overweight wife Helen (June Squibb); his placid friend Ray (Len Cariou); and his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who on the brink of middle-age is getting married to water-bed salesman Randall (Dermott Mulroney). At one point, Schmidt looks around him and says in mock disbelief, "Who are these people?" and for the first time, he's right on the money.

With "About Schmidt," director Alexander Payne ("Citizen Ruth," "Election") and writing partner Jim Taylor have fashioned a modern-day, mid-Western Willy Loman minus the poetic tragedy.

The brilliance of "About Schmidt" is that in the total absence of the dramatic, it conveys real pathos. In his large, comfortable suburban house decorated with knick-knacks accumulated by his wife, and with a new Winnebago Adventurer parked in the driveway, Schmidt sinks depressively into his La-Z boy chair. He just doesn't have the mental resources to combat what could be decades of empty days stretching far into the future.

In desperation, he signs up to be a "sponsor parent" (a bargain at $22 a month) for a 6-year-old African boy named Ndugu. Pretty soon, he starts writing long, heartfelt diatribes against the world in letters to Ndugu -- how the new guy who took over his job is an idiot, how he is repelled by his wife's body and odor, how he hates his daughter's fiance.

That Schmidt would choose to confide these things to a starving child in Tanzania tips you off to his self-absorption and lack of imagination.

When Helen dies suddenly from heart failure (still clutching the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner), Schmidt doesn't dramatically fall apart, he simply decomposes. He plows through the TV dinners and the TV Guide, his once-pristine house is transformed into a refuse dump, and in one memorable scene he deliberately pees all over the bathroom floor.

Then he takes to the road in his Winnebago. He calls Jeannie in Denver, offering to help with the wedding plans, but is refused. When he's finally allowed to show up, Randall's mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates), is the first real contact he's had with a woman in a long time. She puts him in a hot tub, strips down and jumps in with him. Schmidt, however, is terrified. Besides, it's not sex that he wants, but the knowledge that he's "(ahem) made a difference in someone's life." He tries to persuade Jeannie to cancel the marriage but only succeeds in pissing her off. Resigned, he gives the usual father-of-the-bride speech at the wedding (a Dan Fogelberg ballad in the background) and drives home.

"About Schmidt" is about middle-age in middle America (or maybe just middle-age): the platitudes trotted out in lieu of conversation; the inane conventions of daily life; the pleasantness and convenience that has replaced freedom and passion. Years ago, the Cohen brothers made a similar statement with "Fargo," but pushed it over the edge with murder and brutality. Payne opts not to use such trappings. Himself a native of Omaha, he points out that the violence of suburbia doesn't go off in one flamboyant bang. It's a long, drawn-out process, incubating under years of torpor until one day it tears you apart, ever so quietly.

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