Not that Jack can't be remarkably and convincingly low-key. His roles in both of Sean Penn's directorial projects, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge, are some of the best and most understated work he's ever done. And having enjoyed Citizen Ruth and Election, it's surprising to find that writer/director Alexander Payne's latest attempt at satire falls short of impressing when it stars someone that is capable of delivering. Maybe a comparison of the type of respect Penn must demand versus a relative newcomer to Hollywood is in order.
So Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is a recent retiree whose doting wife of 42 years suddenly passes away, and his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is about to marry someone we're obviously supposed to consider inferior (Dermot Mulroney) for spouting silly self-help maxims and inclusion in a pyramid scam. To feel as if he's making some kind of positive difference, Schmidt begins sponsoring an impoverished child all those television ads are always selling. He starts writing letters to the needy child which become a therapeutic channel to expound upon the events in his life. But to desperately convince himself of his own worth, he paints a picture for this stranger of the outcome he wished for rather than responsibly accept that he isn't a different person.
To begin with, About Schmidt is lazy storytelling for its reliance on a voice-over track to explain the internal functioning of Schmidt as he fumbles around in his Winnebago. While it's appreciated that he doesn't run the gamut of childlike tantrums with the many unexpected changes forced on his life, it's annoying to continually stare at an emoting face and be so explicitly told how he's thinking or feeling. It also cheapens any possible sentimental growth in Schmidt to hear about it through self-perpetuating, slightly delusional, heavy-handed dialogue instead of simply seeing him act different in his environment.
However, About Schmidt is not without some merit. It does take the opportunity to dive into some of the darker, self-defeating routines people explore when they have too much time on their hands. It's humorously pathetic that a commercial we're all used to ignoring not only suckers Schmidt into sending precious money but also initiates an important lifestyle introspection. The setup and first realization of Schmidt's divergent opinions from what is shown in his daily actions is well-paced and provokes laughter. Unfortunately, after venturing down these rare paths About Schmidt falls back in line with regurgitated product of yesteryear, much akin to that other "sensitive Nicholson" film that caught Oscar's eye, As Good As It Gets.
The About Schmidt DVD features a number of thoughtfully composed deleted scenes, prefaced by explanatory title cards, that fans of the film will enjoy immensely. There are also five curious short films about the Woodmen Building (where Schmidt originally works), commissioned by Payne for an unknown purpose.
Reviewed at the 2002 New York Film Festival.
Let's hear it for me.
Run time: 125 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd January 2003
Box Office USA: $65.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $105.8M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: New Line Cinema
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 170 Rotten: 30
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Alexander Payne
Starring: Jack Nicholson as Warren R. Schmidt, Kathy Bates as Roberta Hertzel, Hope Davis as Jeannie Schmidt, Dermot Mulroney as Randall Hertzel, June Squibb as Helen Schmidt, Howard Hesseman as Larry Hertzel, Connie Ray as Vicki Rusk, Harry Groener as John Rusk, Mark Venhuizen as Duncan Hertzel, Cheryl Hamada as Saundra, Matt Winston as Gary Nordin
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