**** (out of 5)
December 13, 2002
Jack Nicholson as WARREN SCHMIDT
Kathy Bates as ROBERTA HERTZEL
Hope Davis as JEANNIE SCHMIDT
Dermot Mulroney as RANDALL HERTZEL
June Squibb as HELEN SCHMIDT
Directed by: Alexander Payne
BY KEVIN CARR
Many of us feel that if we only had more money, we’d be happy. In fact, I have a friend who has said that he and his family have no problem that money cannot solve. Unfortunately, few of us get to actually test this.
“About Schmidt” tries to show us that this is not always true. But it show us in a sarcastically humorous way, without preaching to us like we’re watching a “very special episode of Blossom.” Director Alexander Payne shows us how money isn’t the end-all solution through the character of Warren Schmidt, a man who has nothing but money – yet is still miserable. Ultimately, this is a movie about what can happen to you if you don’t follow your heart and your dreams.
Warren Schmidt was a go getter when he was younger (or so he thought). He began life with dreams of starting his own Fortune 500 company, but instead settled into comfortable mediocrity as a vice president of an insurance company. He’s made a good life for himself, but not a tremendous one. He has a nice house and a nest egg for retirement, but he is alienated from his daughter and resents his wife.
In a staggeringly short amount of time, Warren Schmidt loses his job (retirement), his wife (lethal brain clot) and daughter (marriage). He goes on a soul-searching cross-country journey on his way to his daughter’s wedding to a redneck.
The wedding itself is hysterical. It’s like every wedding of your wife’s college friends you’ve been dragged to over the years. Everything is there, from the out-of-tune soloists to the tacky handmade decorations to the drunk, rambling best man speech. Additionally, Warren Schmidt’s father-of-the-bride speech is so screamingly uncomfortable, it’s like waiting for Richard Gere to stick his foot in his mouth as a presenter at the Academy Awards.
Throughout his journey, we keep waiting for Warren Schmidt to redeem himself. After years of happy-ending conditioning, we are used to seeing films in which the brooding male character has a sudden life-changing moment that results in a scene similar to the one in which George Baily runs down the street screaming, “Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!” But Payne doesn’t make it that easy for us – or for Warren Schmidt. He toys with convention, leading us down that happy ending path and then hopping off of it again. It’s refreshing, if not humorously frustrating.
The glue that ties this story together is the letters Warren Schmidt writes to Ndugu, a child he fosters through a late-night “save the children” drive. The unseen Ndugu (a six year old Tanzanian orphan who can’t read or write) becomes his shoulder to cry on.
The supporting cast is supreme, although we do see a little too much of Kathy Bates in the hot tub scene. Dermot Mulroney, who is not exactly a great leading man, plays the doofus Randall Hertzel as expertly as he played the blowhard cinematographer Wolf in the indie comedy “Living in Oblivion.” He fully channels a white trash Keanu Reeves, complete with a mullet and gritball mustache so thick that it could soak up half a can of Budweiser.
Still, this is clearly a Jack Nicholson vehicle. As an actor, good old Jack has a lot to overcome – first and foremost the fact that he is Jack Nicholson. After all, how many of his films have you seen over the last twenty years that you can’t hear Jack Torrance from “The Shining” or see a part of Randal Patrick McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?
“About Schmidt” is quite possibly the first time Nicholson’s been actually asked by a director to stretch in his entire career. This makes some of his less-than-sincere moments forgivable. Still, with the eyebrows and facial expressions, we see a lot of [insert favorite Jack Nicholson character here] emerge through Warren Schmidt.
In this sense, you have to look at Jack Nicholson as a young actor rather than a veteran thespian with one of the most recognizable faces in movies over the last quarter century. If you take this into account, Nicholson the “newcomer” does a fine job. Although there are some painfully unfunny attempts to have him mug at the camera. For example, in one sequence, Warren Schmidt takes Percoset to relieve a neck cramp and ends up attending his daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner drugged out of his mind.
One new territory that Nicholson conquers relatively well is his reactive acting. After decade of being the center of attention, Nicholson gets few chances to play the straight man. However, in “About Schmidt,” he is given more than his fair share of opportunities to just sit back and roll his eyes while everyone else goes crazy – which they do quite often.