The opening sequences of his last two movies provide some proof that Jack Nicholson's much discussed new maturity is not simply one of those inventions of the publicity folks and their accomplices in the entertainment media. Both The Pledge and About Schmidt introduce Nicholson's character at a retirement party, thus indicating that unlike many Hollywood stars, the actor accepts the inevitability of time and refuses to indulge in the injections, face lifts, hair transplants, and other miracles of modern surgery in order to play younger parts --- thus, to paraphrase Yeats, spitting in the face of time that transfigures him. Perhaps not coincidentally, his performances in both pictures belong with his best work at any stage of his career. After some years of skillfully impersonating Jack Nicholson, he is really acting once again.
Nicholson plays the title character, Warren Schmidt, who retires from a position as an assistant vice president and actuary with an insurance company in Omaha. Unaccustomed to the empty days of retirement, Warren misses the office, the routine, and his co-workers, but learns the sad, familiar lesson, that nobody there misses him in turn.
He also realizes, perhaps for the first time, the emptiness of his life, the stifling repression of his marriage, the dullness of his daily round of meaningless tasks, the inconsequentiality of his existence. With no inclination or talent for introspection, he expresses himself frankly only in the letters he writes to a six-year-old Tanzanian boy he sponsors through a humanitarian program. The letters, spoken in the actor's dry, controlled, ironic voice, provide the only hints of Warren's thoughts, as well as a sort of epistolary refrain for the drab music of his life.
When his wife dies suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, Warren confronts a larger loneliness, exacerbated by his beloved daughter Jean's impending wedding to an amiable idiot who sells waterbeds and concocts pyramid schemes. Wandering around his now messy house, unable to handle the business of daily life, Warren takes off in a monster motor home originally intended for those golden years --- the purportedly joyous, endless vacation of retirement in America.
The simple trip from Omaha to Denver, where his daughter will be married, with several stops along the way, ultimately becomes the familiar journey of understanding. Warren comes to understand just a little about himself, his relationship with his daughter, and his ambiguous grief for his wife's death. He also comes to find some significance in what he has regarded as an empty, humdrum existence.
Director Alexander Payne extracts a considerable variety of meaning and emotion from the movie's simple, linear plot. Much of the film depends upon the remarkable intertwining of all its elements, so that the flat prairies of Nebraska and Kansas he drives through in his enormous Winnebago reflect the barren dreariness of Warren's world, the poverty of his imagination and interests, the dullness of the places he visits, the banality of the people he encounters. That apparently universal vapidity sometimes creates some very funny comedy; at other times, some mordant satire; and sometimes, even a genuine sadness as bleak and depressing as the empty landscape.
Since he appears in every frame of About Schmidt, Nicholson must carry the picture --- a difficult task made easier by a strong script and a fine supporting cast. Aside from the letters he speaks on the soundtrack, Warren rarely reveals his thoughts and feelings. Nicholson must simply react with small variations of expression and tone. His essentially passive performance demonstrates the depth of his talent and skill. Through slight gestures, frowns, squints, politely insincere smiles, sidelong glances, pauses, and hesitations, he enables the audience to understand all that he does not and, in fact, cannot say --- all the meaning he conceals beneath the bland, reiterated platitudes; the false jolliness; the dull, everyday dialogue that passes for communication in our time and place. Nicholson brings a completely uninteresting man to life and forces the audience to share his humor, his sorrow, his pain.
As the jolly, exuberant, aggressively Bohemian mother of the moronic groom (Dermot Mulroney), Kathy Bates steals most of the scenes she inhabits by contrast with Nicholson's underacting. After informing Warren, to his horror, of her sexual excitability and highly orgasmic nature, she makes an unequivocal pass at him in a hot tub. Although neither lithe nor lovely nor young, Bates allowed the director to film her in a brief nude shot, an act of courage, grace, and sincere artistry, for which she deserves enormous credit. Her authenticity and integrity epitomize the beauty of a picture about ordinary people in ordinary situations. She doesn't look like a movie star, but like what we often call a "real person."
In its portrait of a distressingly ordinary life in an entirely unremarkable region of the country, its steadfast refusal to glamorize its people or places, About Schmidt constitutes a radical triumph, a far more experimental work than the self-consciously arty Adaptation. The film's feel for the surfaces of life --- the flat Western landscape, dotted with diners and Dairy Queens, its communities sewn together by the empty interstate highways; the boring cities; the cluttered, overfurnished houses of the middle class --- intensifies the sense of constriction in the characters' relationships, the behaviors of highly inhibited people, the awkward banalities of public speech, the general failures of human communication.
About Schmidt is a small masterpiece of control and unity, as satisfyingly genuine and ordinary as what we like to think of as real life. Like Nicholson's performance, the film is a tour de force.
About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, June Squibb, Connie Ray, Harry Gruener, Cheryl Hamada; screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor; based on the novel by Louis Begley; directed by Alexander Payne. Cinemark Tinseltown; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
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