By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Even the most half-cocked gambler wouldn’t have given 2 cents for the future of an actor named Jack Nicholson after watching one of his first starring roles in a 1963 film called The Terror.
Nearly 40 years later, Nicholson keeps getting better and better. In 2001 he gave the year’s finest performance in The Pledge, a film that was completely misunderstood and ignored by nearly everyone. But in 2002, he tops it with his new film About Schmidt, which opens today in Bay Area theaters.
During his career, Nicholson played around in “B” movies, learning how to act. From there, he acted up a storm until he hit upon his “saucy Jack” character, used so well in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, The Witches of Eastwick, etc. But only recently, he’s come out the other side, abandoning all shields and giving us raw, real, emotionally potent stuff.
Like John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando, he’s learned to loosen up and behave as if the camera weren’t even there.
In About Schmidt, he plays the title character, a retired insurance man who loses his way in life. This man who can barely make a sandwich for himself has to figure out how to fill the long days of his autumn years.
In a moment of desperation, Schmidt decides to adopt a little orphaned African boy named Ndugu. Ndugu — whom we never meet — turns out to be the only one Schmidt can tell his true feelings to.
In a masterstroke by writers Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, Schmidt narrates his travels, his reactions and his feelings to little Ndugu, who probably has absolutely no idea what the life of a white 60-something retiree is like. Just hearing Nicholson’s voice deadpanning on the soundtrack, “Dear Ndugu…,” is worth the price of a ticket alone.
Just as Schmidt begins to get used to his new routine, his wife (June Squibb) passes away. All that’s left is his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), with whom he has a tentative relationship at best. Worse, she’s about to marry a big idiot, the car salesman Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), who wears a mullet haircut to hide his thinning pate.
After lolling around the house, eating everything in the cupboard — he sinks to eating plain taco shells — and failing to clean up, he decides to load up his newly-purchased Winnebago and hit the road. Destination: his daughter’s wedding.
Fortunately, the rest of About Schmidt lives up to its star and its top-shelf writing. Schmidt can’t relate to anyone else in the film, neither his daughter, nor her fiancée, nor her fiancee’s strange family — including Kathy Bates as the mother in one of her trademark full-blown boisterous performances.
Director Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election) perfectly taps into the deep reservoir of sadness that 60 years on this earth can fill, and all the comedy in the film is splashed with it. As a result, About Schmidt can be rough going; the laughter always hurts just a little bit.
Likewise, Payne resists any movieland-type catharsis during which Schmidt finds true happiness. He builds his story up to the crescendo of Schmidt’s wedding toast. We expect him to pull a “saucy Jack” — screwing around with the wedding guests, insulting everyone and laughing maniacally. But this is not Jack; it’s Schmidt, and he holds back and does the right and proper thing, even though it stings and leaves us feeling a bit numb.
As writers, Payne and Taylor came to the rescue of a few sagging scripts in recent years, notably Meet the Parents and Jurassic Park III, and there’s no doubt they’ve got wit. But here in their own territory — they insist on filming in Omaha, Nebraska — they ask just a little bit more.
As a director, Payne shows a genius for working with actors. Reese Witherspoon’s performance in Election was one of the great pleasures of 1999. But that character and Laura Dern’s in Citizen Ruth could be construed as satirical and less than human. There’s no mistaking Schmidt’s reality, though. We’re him and he’s us.