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In Alexander Payne's heartbreaking new comedy About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays the most un-Nicholsonian role of his career. He's Warren Schmidt, a retired Omaha actuary whose stiff mummy's walk and air of quiescent reticence hint at years of dutiful repression. Near the beginning, his employers throw him a retirement party at a gaudy local restaurant, and his pal Ray gives a speech declaring that what really mattered about the honoree's life was that he could honestly say, "I did my job." Schmidt listens with a deadpan gaze that quietly registers the horror of such a valedictory, thanks Ray politely for his kind words — Schmidt is, after all, a proper middle-class Nebraskan — and then, once attention drifts away from the head table, unobtrusively trundles off to the restaurant bar to drink a vodka gimlet, alone.
Like countless men who began their careers during the Eisenhower era, the 66-year-old Schmidt has spent his adult life being held together by work, and once this exoskeleton is removed, he has nothing left to do but become an old man. He drops in on his successor and is affably brushed off. He privately fumes at his bossy wife, Helen (June Squibb) — she's trained him to pee sitting down — and idealizes his 30ish daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who's engaged to dim-bulb Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), a waterbed salesman from Denver. Inspired by a TV commercial, he starts contributing $22 a month to "adopt" a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, to whom he begins sending letters more truthful than anything he'll say out loud.
When Helen suddenly dies, Schmidt seems destined for a slow, downhill roll to the grave. But then, after briefly sinking into funereal filth and funk, Schmidt clambers into his huge Winnebago Adventurer and hits the road in search of — something. He visits his childhood home (now a tire store) and his college frat house, stops in towns with names like Ogalalla, and finally winds up in Denver for Jeannie's wedding. There he encounters the Hertzel family, a lively, quasi-hippie-ish clan headed by Randall's gregarious mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), who's loud in every sense — she uses her hysterectomy as a conversational icebreaker. As the wedding plans proceed, Schmidt must discover whether he'll have the courage to oppose the marriage — further aggravating the already-alienated Jeannie — or whether he'll tell the kind of saving lie that has always straitjacketed him but that also holds so much of American life together.
Very loosely based on a novel by Louis Begley, About Schmidt marks the third collaboration between director Payne and screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, whose shared vision of ordinary people keeps getting deeper and more compassionate. Their first film, Citizen Ruth (1996), was a laugh-out-loud satire of abortion activists, pro and con, that put a premium on meanness. They took a huge leap forward with Election, one of the '90s' finest comedies, which tempered its satiric edge with a melancholy that many viewers didn't notice. But the bleakness and poignancy are inescapable in About Schmidt, a character study that has the emotional richness of the great Italian and Eastern European films of the 1960s, in which humor and pathos rode up and down on the seesaw together.
Payne and Taylor are nothing if not funny, and they lace About Schmidt with terrific gags about Hummel figurines, toilet etiquette in a Winnebago, the wallowing-pig slapstick of Schmidt boarding his first waterbed, and their ear for comic speech is pitch perfect ("Heck, a business degree from Drake ought to be worth something"). Once Schmidt starts driving the Nebraska barrens, the movie seemingly takes on the loping looseness of a road picture. But, in fact, everything is carefully structured: The opening speech at the retirement party is mirrored by one at Jeannie's wedding; Schmidt's fumbling lunge to kiss a woman finds a randy echo later on. And the recurring letters to the African foster child are perfect gems of comic repetition. Each time Schmidt begins "Dear Ndugu," the audience giggles both at the words (which are intrinsically funny) and in eager anticipation that Schmidt will again push discretion aside and start expressing his stifled feelings about his colleagues, future son-in-law, even his wife: "Who is this old woman who lives in my house?"
This is Payne's third movie set in his hometown of Omaha, and as one who also grew up there, I can attest to his feel for the place — its dull light, blank middle-class neighborhoods and pervasive sense of endlessly driving past hamburger stands as Rush Limbaugh yammers over the radio. When Hollywood makes comedies about the so-called fly-over states, it nearly always turns the locals into cartoons (think of Sweet Home Alabama), but while Taylor and Payne aren't shy about laughing at Midwesterners, they view them with affection. What may look like condescension is a sharp awareness of social class — of how Reese Witherspoon's hustling in Election is a working-class response to Chris Klein's upper-middle-class sense of entitlement.
In About Schmidt, such social observations grow even more expansive. We may chuckle at the Wisconsin man who examines Schmidt's Winnebago with almost comical reverence, but he and his wife are portrayed as genuinely decent people who see deeper into Schmidt's soul than his own disaffected daughter. Stolidly middle class, Schmidt may look askance at the déclassé Hertzels, who hold a wedding rehearsal dinner at Tony Roma's and frame Randall's diploma for passing a two-week course in electronics. But that's his opinion. The movie itself shows us that, despite their goofy crassness — their sense of décor is a scream — this family has a generosity and vitality missing from Schmidt's own life.
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