Jack Nicholson breaks your heart in "About Schmidt," a surprising achievement from an actor who became a legend in 1970s American cinema by regularly breaking another part of the male anatomy. But Nicholson here forgoes his youthful acting mainstays - the wily joke and wild tantrum - to craft something full of comedy and despair: a portrait of an old man who is face to face with mortality and the emptiness of a life near its end.
We are a long way from the roguish Randle McMurphys and cynical "Badass" Buddusskies in Nicholson's gallery, and the movie takes a road journey very different from "Easy Rider" or "Five Easy Pieces." His role in director Alexander Payne's funny, poignant film of the Louis Begley novel is Warren Schmidt, a 66-year-old actuary at an Omaha investment company who is hit by unwelcome retirement, the sudden death of his wife of 42 years (June Squibb), and the marriage of his treasured but alienated daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to a young man he regards as a nincompoop (Dermot Mulroney as the absurd, Fu Manchu-mustached Randall Hertzel).
"About Schmidt," which just won the Los Angeles Film Critics best film and best actor awards, is a brainy little movie about old age, the Midwest and the ways we lie to each other and ourselves. As we watch Schmidt leave his job and lose his wife, we see him robbed of the pith of his existence. And as he embarks on a mini-quest across the Midwest, traveling to Jeannie's Denver wedding in the Winnebago he and wife Helen bought for his retirement, we see a man gradually stripped of all his illusions about his job, his marriage, his daughter, his life. Finally, the film brings him face to face with emptiness, leavened only by his one honest contact with Ndugu, the 6-year-old African orphan he supports and to whom he writes through a TV-advertised program called Childreach.
"About Schmidt" is wittily written and wonderfully acted, and if we focus on Nicholson, it's only because the film does. The entire cast plays up to his level, especially Davis as his fine-nerved, edgy, slightly gloomy daughter, and Kathy Bates in a hilarious turn as her lusty mother-in-law-to-be, Roberta, who tries to seduce Schmidt in a hot tub. The Hertzels are Schmidt's nightmare: a rowdy clan of counterculture refugees and wannabes. Randall sells "top of the line" waterbeds and wears his long, thinning hair in a ponytail. Roberta is the ultimate lewd old gal, sending out sexual signals with every pseudo-California clich?Both traits are anathema to Warren, who wasted away in the insurance industry for decades; whose sterile, middle-class life was micro-managed by his wife; and who probably, in the end, drove uptight Jeannie to a guy like Randall.
The movie makes an interesting companion piece to another great recent film about an old man's Midwestern journey: David Lynch's "The Straight Story," with Richard Farnsworth's triumphant John Deere tractor ride.
"The Straight Story" is about triumph; "About Schmidt" is a saga of defeat. Both, though, reach a similar bittersweet destination.
The device of using candid letters that Schmidt writes to young Ndugu as the movie's narration, and the fact that the film ends with the orphan's final response, might suggest a sentimental tinge. But "About Schmidt" is neither corny nor truly dyspeptic, despite its often acid humor about typical heartlanders. It's a movie about the great American lie - something I think is misinterpreted by some journalists and critics, who find the film's jokes anti-American or anti-Midwest. Schmidt's world is the Midwest I know. But that achingly familiar-yet-strange place is also a slanted view from a man who feels himself above his neighbors, whose dreams of glory were forged by Forbes Magazine - and who, we see, is wrong about many things.
This is a superb film and one of Nicholson's great performances, tamped down but magnetic. The fact that we keep sensing the old ribald, truth-telling, in-your-face Jack buried inside painfully smiling Schmidt gives the film tension and threat. We could always expect a great temper tantrum in a Jack Nicholson movie; they were the arias of pictures like "Carnal Knowledge" and "Five Easy Pieces." But even though he blows up at his faithless friend early on, the real tantrum never comes. This is the tale of a man who can't speak his mind - unlike Nicholson, who (we know) always can.
4 stars (out of 4) "About Schmidt"
Directed by Alexander Payne; written by Payne, Jim Taylor, from the novel by Louis Begley; photographed by James Glennon; edited by Kevin Tent; production designed by Jane Ann Stewart; music by Rolfe Kent; produced by Harry Gittes, Michael Besman. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Dec. 20. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R (nudity, profanity and sexual situations).
Warren Schmidt - Jack Nicholson
Jeannie Schmidt - Hope Davis
Randall Hertzel - Dermot Mulroney
Roberta Hertzel - Kathy Bates
Larry - Howard Hesseman
Ray - Len Cariou Helen Schmidt - June Squibb
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times