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About Schmidt (2002)

R 125 minutes

Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Louis Begley, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor

 · Jack Nicholson
 · Kathy Bates
 · Hope Davis
 · Dermot Mulroney
 · June Squibb

Review by Thom Stricklin

If anyone is and should be a staple of Hollywood, it's Jack Nicholson.  Perhaps he's not the greatest or most diverse actor in history, but he's damn cool.  (Who else is cool enough to sit in the front row at the Oscars every year?) More than that, he reminds us that a cool guy can still be a great actor.  However, if there's one sort of role he's never played (or hasn't since, say, Going South, depending on your definition) it's "uncool".

That, I believe, was the big selling point of About Schmidt: the chance to see Jack Nicholson at his least cool.  Hey, it worked...  Even though I'd heard disappointing things about it from my family, who'd seen it in theatres, I wanted to give ol' Jack a fair chance, so I rented it this weekend.




The title itself, About Schmidt, stuck in my mind after watching the film.  Though the film certainly revolved around retiree Warren Schmidt, the supporting characters were so quirky and dysfunctional, hastily fleshed out but fleshed out nonetheless, that I felt the film could just as easily be made "about" any other face on the screen.  It helps that the roles were very well cast, well acted, and directed in such a way that, despite some off-the-wall behaviors, everyone seemed down-to-earth & realistic.  Kathy Bates and Dermot Mulroney deserve particular praise for this, considering subpar performances could've dragged the characters into the likes of Joe Dirt or The Waterboy.

I wasn't surprised to find out About Schmidt was based on a book.  Throughout the film I felt like Remains of the Day was being read aloud to me through the voice of a miserly, passive-aggressive, self-centered nutty old man.  Towards the end especially, there were also some strong tones of existentialism a la Camus' The Stranger.  I suppose this stands as proof that film is maturing, reaching a sort of "literary" status.  Perhaps soon, the medium will no longer be seen as a visual "cliff notes" for the supposedly more intelligent written form.




Unfortunately, with this turn towards the literate, About Schmidt runs into a problem: some books are quite simply boring, tedious at best.  All the excellent acting in the world, which this film has plenty of, cannot save it from dragging throughout.  Granted, a slowed pace is symbolic for the isolation and loneliness found within the story, but this gimmick is becoming common and can seriously rob a film of its enjoyability.  Not nearly a true "popcorn" flick, you might in fact choke on a piece of popcorn, receive the heimlich maneuver, slip out of consciousness until someone fetches smelling salts, and get resituated in your seat--without missing a single plot element in About Schmidt.  (Ok...  Perhaps I exxagerate, but I feel forced to create a little excitement in the event you decide to watch the film.)

Another thing that hurts the film is its biggest weapon, and the very thing that invigorates other films: Jack.  His acting is solid as usual, but he's given away by his voice.  The second he opens his mouth, it's hard to think of him as anything but cocky, smooth Jack Nicholson, and that gets in the way of the character.



All that said, a selected viewing of Nicholson's filmography wouldn't be complete without About Schmidt.  Regardless of what you may think of the film, his performance should seal any doubt you may have about him being the coolest good actor around.  If you're a bookworm and wish movies were more like the novels you read, there's a good chance of enjoying About Schmidt as well.  Otherwise, it's a coin toss as to whether or not you should see the film--and don't worry, it's not much of a loss, heads or tails.

606 Words Published: 7 October 2003

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