"About Schmidt" opens with a 66-year-old man staring at a second hand sweep toward the last 5 o'clock of his working life. After years as an executive in what he calls the "insurance game," Warren Schmidt has reached the age of retirement and, like the packed boxes stacked next to him, he's about to get junked. He's a nowhere man at the end of his run and he might not grab your attention if not for the fact that the senior citizen with the exquisitely anguished comb-over and the potato physique is played by Jack Nicholson.
With "About Schmidt," Nicholson at long last has another role big enough for a movie star to get lost in. Based loosely on the novel by Louis Begley, and adapted by Alexander Payne and his longtime writing partner, Jim Taylor, "About Schmidt" tells the story of a Nebraska native who, through various misadventures, finds himself -- or at least some small portion of that self. A comedy poised on the knife's edge of tragedy, the film is a gutsy, truthful, deeply rooted vision of contemporary American life, scaled to the size of an ordinary man. It's a humanist triumph strip-mined of bathos and confirmation that, after directing just three features, Payne has become the most gifted comic social satirist to hit our movies since Preston Sturges.
We get a sense of Payne's ambitions as well as his comic temperament the night of Warren's retirement. Along with his wife, Helen (June Squibb), Schmidt attends a party in his honor at a steakhouse. Surrounded by photos of blue-ribbon steers (Omaha's future steaks), he listens as his young successor at Woodmen Insurance (Matt Winston) lards on empty praise. Then Warren's friend Ray (Len Cariou) unsteadily rises to deliver the words that lay out the film's foundation. If a man has family and friends, says Ray, lifting his glass, he can rest easy, knowing he has devoted his life to something worthwhile. The guests politely applaud and a little later Warren slips off to the restaurant bar for a drink, away from a party that has turned into a requiem.
Warren doesn't get time to enjoy or despair at retirement since soon afterward Helen dies. Devastated, he wanders about like a zombie, lost in grief but also just lost. After years of being catered to, he barely knows how to feed himself much less clean up his own mess. (He's a big baby: he likes his sandwich crusts trimmed.) After he buries Helen and comforts his grown daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), Warren makes a discovery about his marriage that promptly leads him to fire up the couple's Winnebago. His rationale for hitting the road is that he wants to persuade Jeannie to break her engagement with Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a waterbed salesman whom he loathes. In reality, what forces him out of the house is what prompted him to flee his retirement party: Without work, Warren has nowhere to turn.
And so he drives, first toward Jeannie (who tells him to stay put and wait for the wedding), then to the town in which he was born. Before leaving, Warren had, in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity, signed on to sponsor a Tanzanian orphan. Now, as he travels the flat boundless countryside, he writes to the boy, Ndugu, describing his trip, the places and the people, and spinning a version of his life that never matches what we see on screen. Warren isn't a consciously unreliable narrator; rather, he is comically, profoundly unconscious. After a life of self-delusion, he can't separate the lies from the truth. It's a comforting (and perhaps deeply American) fantasy that the road trip leads to self-knowledge, but Payne knows better than to give this emotionally cramped man such a fast out.
Watching Nicholson behind the wheel, even of a monster RV, it's impossible not to picture him in "Easy Rider." Initially, we keep waiting for "Jack" to pop out of the character, to bring down the house with a predatory grin or raise the roof with one of his impishly expressive eyebrows; it doesn't happen. Nicholson never fully disappears from view, but the icon moves far enough to the side that we can see what makes Warren tick. In some respects, the insurance man isn't that different from the all-American type the actor played in "Easy Rider," except that instead of dying young and pretty, Payne's Midwesterner followed a more familiar script: He got married, had a kid, collected the gold watch.
The costs of following that script too closely are evident in the very opening of "About Schmidt," in a series of shots that show the Woodmen building rising tall above a thicket of similarly anonymous slabs. With each cut, Payne brings us closer to the building until its menacing dark façade fills the frame, towering in the sky the way that it has imposed over Warren day after day. Payne has an unadorned visual style (he's a Midwesterner) but by the final thudding shot of the building, the Woodmen tower looks eerily like the black monolith that looms over the dying space traveler at the close of "2001." It's an absurd allusion but also terrifying. After putting away his youthful dreams, Warren spent his prime as a Woodman and now he can barely move or feel. He needs a squirt of oil, desperately.
Eventually he gets it. Warren makes it to Jeannie's side, where he's unwillingly swept up in wedding preparations and the ministrations of Randall's family, including that of the matriarch, Roberta. As played by a sensational Kathy Bates, Roberta is a hippie chick grown stolidly middle class, except that her house is cluttered with lived-in furniture culled from second-hand shops. Warren is horrified by everything Roberta says and does -- by her coarse language, her messiness, her lust. "Look at these people," he shrieks at his daughter. What Warren doesn't know (because he's not really looking) is that Roberta has figured something out he never did. In a world where work is god, dropping out has become a form of apostasy -- as does looking at the wide, wonderful world outside the car window or writing a $22 check to a starving child.
Critics sometimes accuse Payne of condescending to his characters, but perhaps what really bothers them is that Warren's life looks painfully familiar. It's a sign of our diminished expectations for American movies, as well as misguided political correctness, that poking gentle fun at an unsympathetic character, even one as deserving of it as Warren, can be seen as a betrayal of integrity. (Nicholson spent his glory years, the 1970s, in plenty of roles that were more unforgiving.) Payne does make gentle, sometimes broad fun of Warren, Roberta and especially Randall, with his tragic mullet, but the filmmaker never betrays or sells out his characters. Randall may be ridiculous but he also loves Jeannie with an unselfishness that is foreign to Warren. In "About Schmidt," love and kitsch are always in the eye of the beholder.
If "About Schmidt" were purely comic, Warren could easily have become a figure of contempt; if Payne had gone for pathos, painting the character along the same hopeless lines of a Willy Loman, the film would have been excruciating. Perfectly pitched between comedy and tragedy, hope and despair, "About Schmidt" instead comes far closer than many movies to expressing the way many of us live -- someplace between consuming self-absorption and insistently demanding otherness. The great kindness that Payne bestows on Warren is the chance, finally, to get out of his head, to abandon the narrow self-interest that has, until the moment he writes the words "dear Ndugu," whittled his life to so little. If only for a short while, Schmidt sees the world beyond his own shadow.
MPAA rating: R for some language and brief nudity.
Times guidelines: Discreet adult nudity and coarse language.
Jack Nicholson ... Warren Schmidt
Kathy Bates ... Roberta Hertzel
Hope Davis ... Jeannie Schmidt
Dermot Mulroney ... Randall Hertzel
June Squibb ... Helen Schmidt
New Line Cinema presents a Michael Besman/Harry Gittes production. Director Alexander Payne. Writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Based on the novel by Louis Begley. Producers Harry Gittes and Michael Besman. Director of photography James Glennon. Production designer Jane Ann Stewart. Editor Kevin Tent. Music Rolfe Kent. Costume designer Wendy Chuck. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times