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About Despair

 

About Schmidt

Alexander Payne, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: January 5, 2003

By Laurence Station

Regardless of whatever else it has to offer, Alexander Payne's serio-comedy About Schmidt (liberally adapted from the critically-lauded 1996 Louis Begley novel) shows Jack Nicholson masterfully plying his craft. As the recently retired and widowed Warren Schmidt, Nicholson sinks his teeth into a dull, smug personality, forced to undergo a serious life evaluation after the sudden passing of his wife of 42-years (June Squibb) and facing the impending marriage of his only child Jeannie (Hope Davis) to sleazy waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney, sporting a really bad mullet). In the process, Nicholson actually transforms the unlikable Schmidt into a sympathetic and compassionately tragic character. Despite its flaws (and there are many), About Schmidt sinks or swims on the strength of Nicholson, and, unsurprisingly, one of the premier actors in the history of American cinema delivers yet again.

Taking what could easily have been a cheap caricature, Nicholson breaths life into Schmidt via subtly emotive facial expressions -- especially in his reactions, be it to Randall, attempting to coax him into a pyramid scheme shortly after his wife's funeral, or coming across his life's work in office files callously discarded outside the building he used to work in. Nicholson also invests Schmidt's interior monologues -- in the form of letters he writes to Ndugu, a young African boy he sponsors with monthly checks -- with moments of utter despair at his lot in life and his daughter's matrimonial fate. What could have been an artificial crutch on Payne's part turns out to be the strongest aspect of the film, thanks to Nicholson's conflicted and at times tortured voiceovers.

Although About Schmidt bears satirical similarities to Payne's earlier works (everyone is fair game; the audience is expected to feel superior to the supporting characters), it avoids the hot-button issues of abortion (1996's Citizen Ruth) and politics (1999's Election) in favor of a more personal, character-oriented slant. At its core, Schmidt deals with despair and surviving the upheaval of daily life. Without his job as an insurance actuary the 66-year-old Schmidt has no identity. Without his wife, whatever her faults (which, according to Schmidt, were legion), he's lost his day-to-day emotional support system. But Payne continually undermines this approach with repeated cheap zingers at Middle American stereotypes, and the allegedly incredibly dull, cookie-cutter existence of same.

Payne (collaborating once again with screenwriter Jim Taylor) goes to great lengths to make fun of WASP America, from the New Age trippiness of Randall's free spirit mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates), to a pair of over-enthusiastic fellow travelers Schmidt meets at a Winnebago camper park. It's as if Payne didn't trust himself (or perhaps his audience) enough to simply play it straight, concentrating on Schmidt's handling of his various crises. While there are certainly laughs to be had (Roberta stripping down and joining an unsuspecting Schmidt in a hot tub; the tacky decor and music played at his daughter's wedding), the film's overall impact is lessened as a result of this attempt to cater to the audience's perceived desire not to be too bummed out by Schmidt's depressing circumstances. Occasional moments of sappiness -- a stargazing Schmidt witnessing a falling star and taking it as a sign from his dead wife; Schmidt receiving an unexpected reply from Ndugu -- further undermine the film's credibility.

But in the end, the flaws in Payne's contradictory approach take a distant back seat to his star's brilliant lead performance. Viewers, after all, are more likely to ponder whether the larger-than-life Nicholson can pull off the role of a defeated Midwesterner searching for a shred of meaning in the twilight of his life. As it turns out, he does, and that alone proves more than enough reason to see -- if not totally embrace -- About Schmidt.

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