A review of “About Schmidt” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for language, nudity

Run Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

 

 

Jack Nicholson gives a bravura performance as a quintessential Midwestern schlump whose lackluster life sits on the precipice of momentous change.

Warren Schmidt has been made redundant, suffering the inevitable ego-blow of retirement from Woodmen of the World Insurance Company, and left keeping companion with Helen (June Squibb), his patient wife of 42 years.  When Helen unexpectedly keels over and leaves him at the abyss of an uneventful existence, Schmidt is forced into making some life-altering decisions. 

Number One on the agenda is to alleviate the crushing loneliness. Afflicted with guilt over a sappy TV infomercial, Schmidt “buys” himself a friend - a Tanzanian orphan named Ndugu who can be sponsored for $22 a month. Next is what Schmidt feels is his parental duty: to stop his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) from marrying the hopelessly mediocre dolt (Dermot Mulroney as Randall) to whom she’s engaged. 

Schmidt’s journey of self-discovery begins with the 35-foot motor home he and Helen had planned to drive across country.  Hoping to mend the burgeoning rift between himself and his only child, Schmidt embarks on his maiden voyage brimming with hope and determination. Destination: Denver, where Jeannie and Randall are preparing for The Big Day.

The beauty of writer/director Alexander Payne’s (“Election”) ode to the Everyman is in the details.  The lingering humiliation of a rubber-chicken retirement dinner, a fractious encounter with an undulating waterbed, and an unusual attachment to a kitschy pair of Hummel figurines.  A persistent voice-over details Schmidt’s adventures as he relays them (in meticulous letter form) to brand-new confidant Ndugu.

“Schmidt” lacks the caustic wit of “Election”, so the narrative flow rests heavily on Nicholson’s stooped shoulders. Nicholson is at his best in the role, completely void of the Jack-ness that often earmarks a Nicholson performance. Emerging from the stability of the institutions (career, marriage, family) that have kept him on the straight and narrow, his Schmidt is fragile and frightened, masking serious vulnerability with a pathetic bluster.

Supportive best of show goes to Kathy Bates as Roberta, Randall’s free-spirited earth mom.  Schmidt and Roberta exist on two different planes, offering up the dissension of moral values as a classic comic conflict.  Bates’ nude hot tub scene won’t soon be forgotten, memorable enough to land her an Oscar nod.

Heart-breaking, thought-provoking, and thoroughly adult, this dark- around-the-edges comedy is the right stuff.