You Dont Know

Not until youve seen him in About Schmidt, anyway

Payne shows us all this in a directorial style remarkable for its simplicity—and tact. When Schmidt finds his wife dead of a heart attack on the kitchen floor, the camera moves away, and we hear only his cries of sadness and regret. Indeed, there's just one flashy image in the whole film, a gorgeous shot of Schmidt waiting for Jeannie to arrive at the airport. Immune to the siren song of self-aggrandizing "style," Payne lets his actors do their work, winning a tart turn from Hope Davis, who gives Jeannie the sharp-nosed bitterness that is her special tang, and letting Dermot Mulroney's innate sweetness survive Randall's godawful mullet. I laughed out loud at the crack comic work by Kathy Bates, whose Roberta is so full of libidinous brio that she could be the female cousin of Nicholson's smirking astronaut in Terms of Endearment. Bates has always been a game performer, and when Roberta slides her bounteous flesh into a hot tub next to Schmidt, the audience gasps in shock and delight.

Nicholson, though, is the movie's great selling point—and also its biggest problem: the story will rise or fall depending on whether viewers can look past the screen icon and see a quiet Midwestern Everyman. Nicholson himself has done all you could ask: this is easily his strongest work since he did Reds and The Border back-to-back 20 years ago. It has always been part of his vanity that he's not vain like Warren Beatty or Robert Redford, who tend their glamour too carefully to ever play a role that requires them to be flabby, soft-chinned, ravaged, ordinary. Here, Nicholson often looks like someone else (the character actor Paul Dooley keeps coming to mind) and abandons the tricks that made him popular—the killer smile, easy drawl and "Here's Johnny" explosiveness. With a couple of small exceptions, he inhabits Schmidt completely, never slipping into the "poor me" appeals for sympathy that won Jack Lemmon an Oscar for Save the Tiger. Indeed, he gives Schmidt the staring detachment found in so many fathers of that generation, including my own. His gaze is at once observant, judgmental and slightly perplexed, as if he's looking for a transcendence so ineffable that he himself isn't really sure he's looking for it.

While on the road, Schmidt stops at a museum dedicated to the Western pioneers and feels that, compared to the courage of these men and women with their covered wagons, he's nothing—a coward. But the filmmakers clearly think otherwise. We see that this retired insurance man is a kind of modern pioneer whose mini-odyssey in his Winnebago bespeaks a quiet heroism of its own. All alone, Schmidt is confronting the most daunting of questions: How do we invest life with some sense of purpose? What keeps us going in the shadow of death?

We get one answer in the exquisitely ironic final scene, in which everything comes together—the journey, the search for meaning, even the letters to Ndugu. Payne has built the whole movie to a final close-up, a moment of surpassing emotional brilliance by Nicholson that makes us feel the wrenching solitude of Schmidt's life yet offers an unexpected glimpse of hope, a brief intimation that there's more to his life than just loneliness, anger and fear, more than just himself. In this brief moment of release, if not of salvation, we are meant to understand that the movie isn't only about Schmidt.

ABOUT SCHMIDT WAS DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE; WRITTEN BY PAYNE AND JIM TAYLOR, FROM THE NOVEL BY LOUIS BEGLEY; PRODUCED BY MICHAEL BESMAN AND HARRY GITTES; AND STARS JACK NICHOLSON. NOW PLAYING CITYWIDE IN LA.

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