You Dont Know

Not until youve seen him in About Schmidt, anyway

In Alexander Payne's heartbreaking new comedy About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays the most un-Nicholsonian role of his career. He's Warren Schmidt, a retired Omaha actuary whose stiff mummy's walk and air of quiescent reticence hint at years of dutiful repression. Near the beginning, his employers throw him a retirement party at a gaudy local restaurant, and his pal Ray gives a speech declaring that what really mattered about the honoree's life was that he could honestly say, "I did my job." Schmidt listens with a deadpan gaze that quietly registers the horror of such a valedictory, thanks Ray politely for his kind words—Schmidt is, after all, a proper middle-class Nebraskan—and then, once attention drifts away from the head table, unobtrusively trundles off to the restaurant bar to drink a vodka gimlet alone.

Like countless men who began their careers during the Eisenhower era, the 66-year-old Schmidt has spent his adult life being held together by work, and once this exoskeleton is removed, he has nothing left to do but become an old man. He drops in on his successor and is affably brushed off. He privately fumes at his bossy wife, Helen (June Squibb)she has trained him to pee sitting down—and idealizes his 30ish daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who's engaged to dim-bulb Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), a waterbed salesman from Denver. Inspired by a TV commercial, he starts contributing $22 per month to "adopt" a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, to whom he begins sending letters more truthful than anything he'll say out loud.

When Helen suddenly dies, Schmidt seems destined for a slow, downhill roll to the grave. But then, after briefly sinking into funereal filth and funk, Schmidt clambers into his huge Winnebago Adventurer and hits the road in search of—something. He visits his childhood home (now a tire store) and his college frat house, stops in towns with names like Ogalalla, and finally winds up in Denver for Jeannie's wedding. There he encounters the Hertzel family, a lively, quasi-hippie-ish clan headed by Randall's gregarious mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), who's loud in every sense—she uses her hysterectomy as a conversational icebreaker. As the wedding plans proceed, Schmidt must discover whether he'll have the courage to oppose the marriage—further aggravating the already-alienated Jeannie—or whether he'll tell the kind of saving lie that has always straitjacketed him but that also holds so much of American life together.

Very loosely based on a novel by Louis Begley, About Schmidt marks the third collaboration between director Payne and screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, whose shared vision of ordinary people keeps getting deeper and more compassionate. Their first film, Citizen Ruth (1996), was a laugh-out-loud satire of abortion activists, pro and con, that put a premium on meanness. They took a huge leap forward with Election, one of the '90s' finest comedies, which tempered its satiric edge with a melancholy that many viewers didn't notice. But the bleakness and poignancy are inescapable in About Schmidt, a character study that has the emotional richness of the great Italian and Eastern European films of the 1960s, in which humor and pathos rode up and down on the seesaw together.

Payne and Taylor are nothing if not funny, and they lace About Schmidt with terrific gags about Hummel figurines, toilet etiquette in a Winnebago and the wallowing-pig slapstick of Schmidt boarding his first waterbed, and their ear for comic speech is pitch perfect ("Heck, a business degree from Drake ought to be worth something"). Once Schmidt starts driving the Nebraska barrens, the movie seemingly takes on the loping looseness of a road picture. But, in fact, everything is carefully structured: the opening speech at the retirement party is mirrored by one at Jeannie's wedding; Schmidt's fumbling lunge to kiss a woman finds a randy echo later on. And the recurring letters to the African foster child are perfect gems of comic repetition. Each time Schmidt begins "Dear Ndugu," the audience giggles both at the words (which are intrinsically funny) and in eager anticipation that Schmidt will again push discretion aside and start expressing his stifled feelings about his colleagues, future son-in-law, even his wife: "Who is this old woman who lives in my house?"

* * *

This is Payne's third movie set in his hometown of Omaha, and as one who also grew up there, I can attest to his feel for the place—its dull light, blank middle-class neighborhoods and pervasive sense of endlessly driving past hamburger stands as Rush Limbaugh yammers over the radio. When Hollywood makes comedies about the so-called fly-over states, it nearly always turns the locals into cartoons (think of Sweet Home Alabama), but while Taylor and Payne aren't shy about laughing at Midwesterners, they view them with affection. What may look like condescension is a sharp awareness of social class—of how Reese Witherspoon's hustling in Election is a working-class response to Chris Klein's upper-middle-class sense of entitlement.

In About Schmidt, such social observations grow even more expansive. We may chuckle at the Wisconsin man who examines Schmidt's Winnebago with almost comical reverence, but he and his wife are portrayed as genuinely decent people who see deeper into Schmidt's soul than his own disaffected daughter. Stolidly middle class, Schmidt may look askance at the déclassé Hertzels, who hold a wedding rehearsal dinner at Tony Roma's and frame Randall's diploma for passing a two-week course in electronics. But that's his opinion. The movie itself shows us that, despite their goofy crassness—their sense of décor is a scream—this family has a generosity and vitality missing from Schmidt's own life.

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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