Even Jack Nicholson can't save About Schmidt.

Even Jack Nicholson can't save About Schmidt.

Even Jack Nicholson can't save About Schmidt.

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Dec. 12 2002 5:26 PM

Omaha Lineman

Even Jack Nicholson can't save About Schmidt.

On a mission to make a difference
On a mission to make a difference

Alexander Payne's end-of-life road movie About Schmidt (New Line) is like a Twilight Zone episode in which Jack Nicholson awakes to find himself a 66-year-old former actuary and assistant vice president of an Omaha insurance company married to a small, overbearing woman who looks every bit her own age. This, of course, is not the film's literal premise. But Nicholson is the closest thing we have to a great actor with an expansive, Bogart-like movie-star persona, and he always comes with what a physicist might term a massive amount of "potential energy." When, at the climax of About Schmidt, the title character rises to make a toast to the marriage of his only daughter to a man he regards (accurately) as a nincompoop, it is the most loaded moment in a movie this year—not because of anything he says, but because of you can hold it between your knees and the bug that you have up your assssss, because a Nicholson who doesn't unleash the full force of his libidinous counterculture energy is a Nicholson unrealized.

Since the '80s, it's the "unrealized" Nicholson who has actually been the more exciting: not the mugging, Oscar-winning Jack Nicholson impersonator of As Good As It Gets (1997), but the grimly, sometimes furiously contained character actor of The Border (1982), last year's The Pledge, and now AboutSchmidt. Payne's movie is flat, depressed, and at times—given this director's talent—disappointingly curdled; it needs every quivering molecule of Nicholson's repressed rage to keep it alive and humming. 

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The movie is a surprisingly old-fashioned specimen of the "tune-out, turn-off, drop-in" genre—in which a funked-out character, suddenly stripped of the opiates of his or her previous life, drifts through what seems like a cold and harsh new world. Here that world is a gray Midwest in which ominously indifferent skyscrapers are bunched together on the flat plains, in which retirements and marriages are celebrated in chain restaurants to the tune of chain homilies.

After the sudden death of his wife (June Squibb), Warren Schmidt spends his days in bed or watching TV, the dirty clothes and dishes piling up. In time he writes long letters to a Tanzanian orphan named Ndugu, whom he has sponsored (after seeing an ad on TV) for $22 a month. He tells Ndugu that, as a former actuary, he can calculate with great probability how many years a man will live, and he gives himself a 73 percent chance of being dead in nine. He says, "Life is short, Ndugu." So he takes to the road in a 35-foot Winnebago to try to convince his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), not to marry a cretinous water-bed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Schmidt longs, before he dies, to make a difference.

Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, have largely discarded the Louis Begley novel (set in an affluent, New York milieu) with which they began. As in Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999), they're out to chart the distinct dementia of the "red" states in the vast middle of the country. And although Payne has chosen until recently to make his home in Nebraska, he seems to regard the so-called heartland as a barren place, indeed—a place where souls go unwatered. Schmidt's retirement party is marked by numbingly generic toasts; and even when his drunken best friend, Ray (Len Cariou), lurches to his feet to dismiss the previous encomiums as b.s., Ray ends up spouting a different (and no more insightful) set of chestnuts. One scene, in which the bored Schmidt goes to visit his "young-punk" successor, has been constructed entirely of clichés: from "Hey, there he is!" to "You look great—you been workin' out?" This is the code of Midwestern American capitalism, as rigid in its ways as a Japanese tea ceremony—only enacted by people who don't realize that their modes of discourse have been so deadeningly channeled. Payne's Midwest is a land that has apparently not discovered irony.

That's odd, since David Letterman comes from the Midwest, too, and you'd think his slant would have reached Omaha by now. Or is Letterman popular only in the "blue" states, where they sneer at the folks back home? The parade of people whom Schmidt encounters are Letterman-worthy fools—serene in their mobile homes, delighted by their prime-rib restaurants, smug in their materialism. There are shots of Randall's dimwitted brother that would not be out of place in a Rob Schneider picture. No wonder Payne is moving to Hollywood, since he's unable to see anything but anomie and zombielike artifice in the Midwest.

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The director took some easy shots in Citizen Ruth, too, but that movie hurtled along at a rollicking, Preston Sturges-like tempo, and the audacity of its premise (it was a screwball comedy about the anti-abortion movement) went far toward putting it over. But About Schmidt needs something more than Payne and his hero's strangely resigned superiority. It needs more, richer, and more conclusive scenes with Schmidt's daughter, Jeannie, whom Davis plays with a post-nasal-drip neurosis I find mysteriously alluring but who isn't enough of a counterweight.

Get ready for wild spasms of horror
Get ready for wild spasms of horror

No one in the movie balances Nicholson, not even for one scene. As a loud, bohemian feminist and the mother of Jeannie's boobish fiance, Kathy Bates brings an enlivening jolt of energy—she summons up your fight-or-flight instincts, as would an oncoming bulldozer. But her pride in her son is meant to be delusional, and the movie makes the final case against her character with a scene in which she hops into a hot tub and comes on to Schmidt. Yes, it's a double standard: She's in better shape than he is. But audiences have not yet evolved to the point where they can greet the sight of a naked Kathy Bates without wild spasms of horror.

There's a larger disconnect in About Schmidt: It's hard to imagine Nicholson ever being at home with this family and accommodating himself to the protocols of a small-city insurance company. Suspension of disbelief goes only so far, even in The Twilight Zone. And yet the movie holds you. Its characters are one-dimensional, but there is real emotion in its aura of hopelessness. And Nicholson is capacious in his stillness. He will always be the world's most mythically bedraggled rich guy. It's fun just to pore over his visage, with its pouches within pouches, its left eyebrow ever ready to fly up and his face to assume its rightful leer. The old cliché goes that some actors are so great you could thrill to their reading the phone book. In Nicholson's case, it just might work. Imagine him reading, say, "Bacon, Gladys" and his eyebrow flying up, and the innocuous words that become double-entendres and the double-entendres that become triple entendres. The potential energy is nuclear.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.