About Schmidt (2002) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language and brief nudity
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb, Howard Hesseman
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (based on the novel by Louis Begley)
Review published May 24, 2002
I'm beginning to think that if Alexander Payne were to write and direct a film about the process of bee pollination, it would still be one of the best films of the year. Of course, I'm being a little facetious here, but not by much. His last two films, Citizen Ruth and Election, were almost as unlikely to be the best in their respective years, but thanks to Payne's acute characterizations and keen insights, they succeeded where most other filmmakers would have failed with the same subject matter. Oh yeah, and it doesn't hurt that Jack Nicholson (The Pledge, As Good as it Gets) delivers another Academy Award-worthy performance.
Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, newly retired after a lifetime in the insurance business, and having trouble adjusting to the idle time. Now that he has a chance to look back over his life, depression begins to set in for a life he feels has been a waste. His wife (Squibb, Meet Joe Black) annoys him, his daughter (Davis, Arlington Road) moved to the other side of the country and is engaged to marry a "nincompoop," (Mulroney, My Best Friend's Wedding) and the company he worked for no longer needs his services. One day while channel surfing, Schmidt decides to send money to a fund to help a poor child in Africa, Warren's being a six-year-old named Ngudu, he takes the opportunity to use the letters he writes to the boy as a way of logging his memoirs about his feelings on his life.
Even if it were just to see Nicholson in fine form performing a role that requires him to be reserved, About Schmidt would be well worth watching. However, this is more than a performance, it's a very humorous (and I mean laugh-out-loud funny) and often very touching story, adapted from Louis Begley's novel. While the characters are colorful, and the situations sometimes strange, About Schmidt never feels phony or contrived for laughs. The characters are three-dimensional, and even after watching Warren for almost two hours, when he has to make a key speech later in the film, we actually don't know what he's going to say, and when he delivers it, if he's speaking what he truly feels inside.
Credit Alexander Payne for keeping the story unpredictable, utilizing a plot structure where we're never sure exactly where the story is headed, with characters you don't typically find in your run-of-the-mill comedy. There's quite a bit of little character touches that make the dialogue and actions realistic, and when something funny happens, we laugh as though they happened to a friend in reality. Although it is a very funny film, there is also much sadness to About Schmidt, because Warren is a sad person deep down, and we feel sympathy, and want happiness for him. Payne also masters the tone of the film, because even among the saddest of scenes, you'll find yourself laughing as well, and the tone never seems uneven.
About Schmidt is a bittersweet film, but with an edge. It is a must-see for fans of Nicholson, who gives his best work since As Good as it Gets, although I could have done without seeing his backside -- or Kathy Bates' (A Civil Action) for that matter. It's as funny as any film I've seen this year, and equally as touching. The saddest part is having to wait another year or two to see what other unlikely gem Payne has in store for us next.
©2003 Vince Leo