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About Schmidt

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: About Schmidt

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis
Director: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
RunTime: 124 Minutes
Release Date: January 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Kathy Bates, Howard Hesseman, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, June Squibb

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Much has been written in pop psychology magazines about male mid-life crisis: the time that men at about age forty take inventory of their lives and resolve to make changes. Most realize that they're not going to be CEO's and worry about the way their hormones are losing their edge. Some get nifty Mercedes Kompressors, others (especially during the 1960s and 1970s) wear their weekend shirts unbuttoned, strings of beads decorating their hairy chests.

Since senior citizens are not as sexy, stories about them are largely missing from the big screen. Since most moviegoers are under the age of forty, the studios worry about baleful box offices as films like "On Golden Pond" fail to bring in the MTV crowd.

"About Schmidt" is one of the exceptions. Dealing with a fellow who has turned sixty-six years of age, the film might be considered good at art, less sanguine at commerce, since after all, would the youthful audience want to look at a codger who rarely smiles, who is not on the make, and who is tossed onto the dustbin by both his profession and his family? The big difference here is that Warren Schmidt is played by Jack Nicholson in a lead performance called by Hollywood Reporter online "sublime" and "a tough act to follow." Yet while Michael Rechtshaffen of that trade paper calls the movie "blisteringly funny," he gives his readers the idea that this is a no-holds-barred laugh fest when in fact it is something better: "About Schmidt" is a family comedy replete with Checkhovian themes more comparable to that playwright's "Uncle Vanya" than to Jay Roach's "Meet the Parents."

Though "About Schmidt" can be read as a Sinclair Lewis-style put-down of Midwestern blandness and babbitry, director Alexander Payne together with his co-scripter Jim Taylor has more important issues in mind. The film should be seen as an Everyman story, perhaps a warning to those of us who are still short of senior citizenhood to seize the day, possibly as an existential cri de coeur on the theme of loneliness, alienation, and the meaningless that many of us feel our lives have becomes and the banality of human existence.

Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) has just retired from his job as assistant Vice President of Woodmen Insurance Co. after thirty- two years' service. After hearing a round of hackneyed speeches at his retirement party and suffering the cockiness of his much younger replacement who has no use for his advice, he has yet more crosses to bear. His wife Helen (June Squibb) has suddenly died and Schmidt, who had been irritated by everything she does ("Who is this old woman who is living in my house?") begins to miss her terribly. He uses the Winnebago Adventurer with which he and his wife planned to use to tour the country to head out to Denver where his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is to be married to a waterbed salesman, Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney as unrecognizable as "The Hours"' Nicole Kidman). Warren thinks little of his future son-in-law and tries to convince his little girl not to marry the klutz: we wonder whether he really opposes Hertzel's character or whether he simply does not want to give up the last significant human being in his life.

"About Schmidt" is blessed by a smashing supporting performance from Kathy Bates as Jeannie's future mother-in-law, Roberta Hertzel, a liberated woman who speaks openly about her hysterectomy, about the sexuality which she felt since the age of six, and her belief that Warren should have nothing to worry about since his daughter and son-in-law will always be great "between the sheets." The funniest scene has Roberta climbing into a hot tub just after Warren's immersion pendulous breasts swinging as she hits on the terminally embarrassed retiree.

Jack Nicholson carries the movie, appearing in every scene, his signature facial expressions making dialogue almost unnecessary. The voice-overs, done unobtrusively in the form of letters that Warren has been writing to a six-year-old Tanzanian boy he has "adopted" by sending him twenty-two dollars each month, fill the gaps in the narrative fortuitously.

In Checkhov's "Uncle Vanya," the title character, who has spent his life working the estate of a pompous professor, ultimately leave the grounds, looking forward to an uneventful, barely bearable routine that had become his way of life. That Alexander Payne, whose previous, edgy works like "Election" (which spoofs American politics) and "Dear Ruth" (which shows the absurdity of both sides on the abortion debate), can be compared to Chekhov is no small tribute.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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