With ABOUT SCHMIDT, Alexander Payne fixes the same acute eye he used in both CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION to once again rip the façade of wholesome gentility from the upper middle class of the heartland of America and to show us the savagery beneath. Again Payne has chosen the milieu Nebraska, the home of the stalwart, the solid, and salt-of-the-earth citizenry that is, according the myth of America, the bedrock of our civilization here in the States.
We have Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt, newly retired as a VP at an insurance company and newly widowered, and facing the wedding of his daughter, whom he lovingly calls past her prime, to a man he considers beneath her (Dermot Mulroney sweetly dim while sporting a particularly bad mullet). With so many life changes barreling down on him, its not surprising that Schmidt is in for some highly uncharacteristic soul-searching as he takes stock here at the end of his life. And given the buildup we see in the first 20 minutes or so, its not surprising that the results will be hard to take. His was a life or order with a cushy job and a lovely home with a dutiful wife to take care of it. The sort of life he and his generation were told to aspire to. Now his job is summed up with archive files bearing his name tossed in the trash, a home that is a palace of boredom, and a chirpy wife who irks him beyond the possibility of coping. His only outlet become letters to a foster child he sponsors in Africa, the vitriol of which startles him as it flows from his pen. At loose ends, and forbidden by his literally and figuratively distant daughter (played with winsome melancholy by Hope Davis) arrive for her wedding more than a day or two in advance, he hops into his RV to revisit his past, sensing in some inchoate way that it might help.
Payne, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor from the novel by Louis Begley, nails not only the emotional sterility of Schmidts life, but that of his social class as well. The retirement party thrown by Schmidts company is characterized by canned sentiment and the clatter of cutlery on plates as business associates fumble through seeing one another in social circumstances. No wonder the guest of honor escapes to the relative coziness of a nearby bar filled with strangers. Contrasting that with Schmidts new in-laws headed up by an earthy Kathy Bates who is as unaffected and unreserved as Schmidt is tightly wound. Her extended family of kids, exes, and their relations is a rowdy, artistic bunch for whom money is not the point, and who say what they really think, yell when they feel like it, and love each other with a ferocious passion that Schmidt and his ilk might come to appreciate, sort of, but never understand or be part of. And yes, the rumors are true, Kathy Bates does bare all in a hot tub scene that might shift some paradigms about how women (and men) view their bodies.
Nicholson who, when not reigned in, can conjure Mephistopholes with one well-executed cock of his prehensile eyebrows, turns in a deeply affecting performance of quiet power. While the desperation of watching the sum of his life amount to a rather large goose egg is palpable, the lifetime of not making waves and following the social rules that only seemed important still have sway. There are no traffic-stopping outbursts a la FIVE EASY PIECES, instead, there is a measured, multi-faceted portrait of a man adrift, unsure of what it has all meant and certain only that his death, the timing of which he has calculated using the skills he picked up as an actuary, will have little meaning to anyone, even himself. There is one moment when he is visiting his old fraternity house, killing time until his daughter will allow him to show up in Denver for her wedding, when he seeks out a picture of himself in his college days. Faced with his younger self, the one so full of promise and big dreams, his expression shows him both feeling what was like to be that boy with the world as his oyster, and how it feels to know that it has all little by imperceptible little slipped away over the years without even having had the chance to be mourned properly. When we come to his final moments on screen, when his future is sealed and he finally gets, really gets, what he was missing, Nicholson is a marvel of Schmidt’s self-revelation, yet in doing so he never breaks faith with the character that he has done such a careful job of creating. This is Nicholsons most mature work and along with FIVE EASY PIECES and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, the one for which he will be best remembered.
The marketing for ABOUT SCHMIDT has played up its comedic elements, and there are moments of exquisite absurdity to be sure, but to sell it as just comedy is to sell it criminally short. And to miss the point entirely.