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'About Schmidt'

Jack Nicholson adds the extra to the ordinary

Friday, January 03, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

There is some ongoing magical connection between Jack Nicholson and the roles that keep rolling off the screenwriter's pen for him. The skills of the one fire the imagination of the other, and "About Schmidt" is the current stellar example.

 
 

'ABOUT SCHMIDT'
Rating: R for language and adult subject matter
Players: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney
Director: Alexander Payne
Critic's call:

   
 

At first, there doesn't seem all that much to find out about Warren Schmidt, aside from the fact that Nicholson plays him: He's is a very ordinary 65-ish man, living in the very ordinary city of Omaha with his very ordinary wife, Helen (Jane Squibb). In the film's opening, they are attending the party for Warren's retirement from a very ordinary insurance company.

His beloved daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), couldn't make it. She's busy in Denver, planning her wedding to Randall (Dermot Mulroney) -- who is not ordinary. How could he be, with a mother like Kathy Bates, who proudly tells everybody she breast-fed him until he was 5?

Warren has trouble being polite to his future son-in-law (a waterbed salesman) on the phone. "You should make more of an effort," Helen admonishes him, as she cold-creams her face before bed. "My father didn't think too much of you at first, either."

Nobody thinks too much of -- or about -- Schmidt. Certainly not his successor at the office, "who doesn't know a damn thing about risk assessment" but gives Warren the brush-off when Warren tries to fill him in.

Nor does Warren think much about anybody else except Jeannie, until one day, idly channel surfing through the Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller movies on TV, when he sees one of those adopt-a-kid-in-the-Third-World commercials -- "for just $22 a month." With no one better to connect to, he begins a one-way relationship with a 6-year-old Tanzanian in a series of "Dear Ndugu" letters.

Helen would ridicule the idea if she knew. But she is busy preparing for good times in the new Winnebago they bought over his objections. Everything she does irritates him ... the way she sits, the way she smells, her Hummel collection. "Who is this old woman who lives in the house with me?" he wonders silently.

But he doesn't have to wonder too long, because Helen suddenly dies (while he was out "dilly-dallying" over a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen). Everything that follows -- the funeral arrangements, the grief counseling, the recriminations with his daughter about her impending marriage -- are late-life rituals of loss, rendered by director Alexander Payne's and novelist Louis Begley's elliptical script often wordlessly for long stretches at a time. Conversations and pronouncements begin, then taper off unfinished, because once we've heard the start we know the rest by heart.

Words have never been less important to a Nicholson characterization than here. Randall raises a toast to the dearly departed: "To Helen -- they broke the mold!" Warren's sole reaction -- a slight eye movement -- speaks silent volumes. A twitch or a glance is likewise all he needs to respond to Randall's proposed "investment opportunity" after the funeral.

It was quite an event, he writes Ndugu. "People came from as far away as Des Moines and Wichita." P.S., thanks to his actuarial skills, Warren has calculated that there's a 75 percent chance he'll live nine more years.

What'll he do with them?

He'll go on the road! Pay a surprise prenuptial visit to Jeannie and Randall in Denver! When that idea is firmly squelched, he makes a detour-pilgrimage to his Nebraska birthplace and his old frat house at KU in Lawrence -- where his reception isn't much better. The only time he and his loneliness "connect" -- with a hospitable couple in a trailer park -- ends in disaster.

But the word disaster takes on new meaning when he finally meets the in-laws and becomes their captive house guest. Up to that point, "Schmidt" has been an engrossing but somewhat lugubrious affair. It takes on hilarious new life with the entrance of Bates, her hated ex-husband (Howard Hesseman), dysfunctional family and awkward lazy-susan dinners.

As it wends its way to a climax -- the wedding that Warren tries but fails to prevent -- Schmidt and his letters to Ndugu become more and more bitterly sardonic.

One can't imagine it succeeding without Payne's sensitive direction or such a maddeningly perfect cast. No Helen could be more prosaic than Squibb, no Jeannie more facile than Davis, no Randall more sweetly dorky than Mulroney. And the bickersome Bates and Hesseman are to die for.

But it is Jack Nicholson who soars, transcending the anguish and the humor and blending them into a poignant human mix. Look for Jack to be nimble getting out of his seat at the next Oscar ceremony.


Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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