High Plains Drifter
Jack Nicholson Hits the Road for a Career-Capping Performance in About Schmidt
The good people of writer/director Alexander Payne's Omaha are like mirror-universe John Waters characters. They don't line up outside male strip joints, as in Pecker. If a Nebraskan has a pornographic moment, it happens in the basement while the wife is asleep upstairs, like Matthew Broderick in Election. And no one in Payne's Omaha is striving to be the filthiest person alive; instead, all filth must be vacuumed up, preferably while on hands and knees, as does Warren Schmidt's fussy wife (June Squibb).
About Schmidt--adapted from Louis Begley's novel by Payne, who moved the setting from Manhattan to his hometown--is out to show us how a conventional man like late-in-life Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) comes to recognize and then deal with his own filthiness. And Payne has wisely chosen to do so with a filmmaking style that is, on its surface, conventional. It's such a transparent method of movie-making (the action takes place chronologically!) that most people won't think of it as an Alexander Payne movie at all--it's the "new Jack Nicholson movie." Payne's unshowy choices for the material might wind up costing him an Oscar nomination, but they were right for About Schmidt, which keeps its satirical edge without ever drawing blood.
About Schmidt has been touted as the movie in which Nicholson has left his Jack tricks behind--that triangle-shaped grin, the upward glance that exposes his entire sclera, the wisenheimer voice. This is Nicholson playing his age, with a wife his own age, jowls, a sallow complexion, and a comb-over that could cover the field at Cornhuskers' Memorial Stadium. It's a performance meant to be admired for its lack of vanity, and it would all be as annoying as that sounds if he weren't so good. After all this time, Nicholson knows how to perform on camera, including how to stand still and wait for his life to begin.
The movie opens with Schmidt's retirement party from Woodmen of the World Insurance Company, where his young replacement falsely toasts to Schmidt's continued usefulness to the company--a lie confirmed when Schmidt returns for an unappreciated visit. Schmidt isn't particularly welcome at home either, where his wife is consumed with preparations for the Denver wedding of their daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis) to Randall Hertzel (Dermont Mulroney), a mullet-headed nincompoop waterbed salesman.
Schmidt's uneasy feelings about his future son-in-law, as well as his growing resentment toward his plump, bossy wife, are revealed via an utterly splendid narrative trick--a series of letters to a Tanzanian orphan, Ndugu Umbu, whom he has impulsively "adopted" after watching a late-night infomercial. Because he encloses such wildly inappropriate personal information in these letters, Schmidt's "Dear Ndugu" rambles are hilariously funny, but the sadness of the situation--of this being the only way in which Schmidt can discover himself--is never completely lost.
If Schmidt handles his planned retirement poorly, he handles his unexpected widower status even less well. He embarks on a midwestern Winnebago odyssey that takes him from his hometown to his alma mater and eventually to a motor-home park, where Payne's gentle satire appears to begin a dangerous slide to into mockery. In a scene that is particularly difficult to pin down, a neighborly woman (played by Connie Ray, whose looks suggest caricature) appears to genuinely discover Schmidt's deep sadness. Her ministrations are mistaken for flirtation, and the tone here is wobbly--it's possibly the only false note in the movie
From there Schmidt heads to Denver, where he meets his future in-laws, including the amazing Roberta Hertzel, brought to life by Kathy Bates. Within about 12 seconds, Bates establishes a character with a vivid present, an elaborately detailed and recognizable past, and indelible individuality. Roberta's specificity is perfect counterbalance to Schmidt's vagueness, and it's no wonder that he's scared to death of her. Whereas Schmidt is only beginning now, after some 60 years, to understand his own urges, Roberta has never had trouble expressing her desires and opinions. That her opinions are frequently wrong and her understanding of human nature misguided makes her one of the most fabulous gorgons in recent movie history.
Answers to Schmidt's self-questioning don't come to him easily. His daughter's brittle defensiveness may prove to be a permanent state of affairs, with nothing much to be done about it now. But there is an answer to it all for Warren Schmidt, and it provides this rewarding end-of-year treat with an ending of great and memorable decency.