Jack Nicholson draws you in
About Schmidt is a simple tale told with caring
Jack Nicholson's name can conjure up several images --- a detective working through corruption in the Los Angeles police department; a mental patient who may just be sane; an axe-wielding writer set to kill his family in a snowbound hotel; and a romantic retired astronaut.
In director Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, the actor has revealed one more dimension to his complex screen personnae --- that of a quiet, lonely man coping with old age all by himself. The film, which opened the 40th New York Film Festival, sees Nicholson as Warren Schmidt, a recently retired actuary whose belief in the certainty of life is shaken by events that he could have never predicted.
Warren, perhaps the most controlled and emotionally rich role Nicholson has played in his career, is the creation of the Oscar nominated team --- Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor (Election). The film is based on a novel by Louis Begley, but is also inspired by a script Payne wrote for Universal, while he was in film school, The Coward.
That script never got made into a movie, and Payne moved on to direct his two critically acclaimed dark comedies, Citizen Ruth (1996), a study of abortion politics and Election (1999), a brutal and hilarious look at high school student council elections (the film propelled Reese Witherspoon's career, establishing her as a comic star with strong box-office appeal). Like his first two films, About Schmidt is once again set in the director's hometown, Omaha, Nebraska (the film will have its US premiere in December in New York, Los Angeles and Omaha).
About Schmidt opens with Warren Schmidt sitting in his insurance company office for one last time. The next day he will retire. But being a creature of habits, Schmidt awaits the office clock to turn to 5 pm. His next stop is to the customary office retirement party at a local restaurant where he is joined by his other colleagues and their spouses in their old fashioned suits and hairdos.
Like for most working people, retirement shakes the predictability and regularity of Warren's life. A customary visit to his office the very next day gives him a bitter lesson: he is not wanted there anymore. So Warren is compelled to accept that he will have to spend more and more time in the presence of his bubbly and controlling wife Helen (stage actress June Squibb).
Just when he is getting used to being at home with Helen, life takes an unexpected turn. Helen suddenly drops dead, leaving Warren to face another burden, that of a grieving widower.
The heart of the film has Warren taking a self-discovery tour of Nebraska in his 35-foot motor home, rediscovering sites that he had visited as a child or a younger man. The brand new motor home had originally been bought with plans to take a post-retirement tour around the country with Helen. Warren's final destination is Denver, where his rebellious daughter and only child Jeannie (Hope Davis), a shipping clerk for a local company is set to marry Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a water bed salesman.
Although Warren never developed an emotional bond with his daughter (or for that matter, with anyone else in his life), he now feels propelled to make a difference in Jeannie's life and to stop her from making what appears to him a big mistake --- marrying Randall. Warren's annoyance is not just at the underachieving, goofy and actually very likable Randall. He is also appalled by the free-spirited lifestyles of Randall's divorced parents, Roberta (Kathy Bates) and Larry (Howard Hesseman).
In one of the film's hilarious sequences a naked Roberta (yes, Bates has no qualms about shedding all her clothes) jumps into the hot tub while Warren looks totally aghast.
The fact that Warren will not succeed in changing his daughter's mind is given. He may believe differently, but Warren has never had any control over his life or the people around him. And Payne and Taylor are not going to give him this one pleasure in his life.
The only thing certain in Warren's life is his monthly correspondence with six-year-old Tanzanian orphan Ndugu Umbo, whom he sponsors for $22 a month through a Christian charity. This is the kind that run commercials on late night television. Although the letters never appear to reach their destination, we do not hear from Ndugu (until the quiet, but searing ending). Warren's correspondence (read in deeply affected, yet funny voice-overs by Nicholson) gives him a chance to re-examine his life. It is like talking to a psychotherapist. Except in this case the letters are addressed to what seems to be an imaginary orphan living in the heart of Africa.
With his heavy, sad face and sunken cheeks, Nicholson looks more like a lost Ernest Borgnine and less like a movie star with a swagger. You will laugh at him, at his predicaments and maybe eventually cry with him, but Nicholson's Warren will always stay with you. Payne has said that he like to write roles and shoot actors when they are alone on the screen. In About Schmidt, the director gives the audience ample opportunity to view Nicholson, by himself, in his familiar yet lonely surroundings.
The film's other brilliant transformation --- almost beyond recognition is Mulroney's Randall. The actor with a long pony tail --- to compensate for his nearly bald head, and a goatee is a far cry from the charming young man who had to choose between Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend's Wedding. Bates's Roberta is wild, but a very secure woman --- quite the opposite of Warren. Although Roberta only appears in the second half of the film, Bates's warmth brings a sense of stability in the character, especially in Warren's life.
About Schmidt is eventually a tale of simple people and their less than perfect but complex lives. There is ample humour, and in the hands of a less able filmmaker, schooled in the ways of big cities on the East or West coasts, the film's tone could have easily bordered on condescending.
But Payne's writing and direction cares too deeply for his characters and their surrounding. He takes us to a part of a world that we rarely visit. And it is truly a worthwhile trip.
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