Warren Schmidt is the anti-Jack. By Jack, I mean Jack Nicholson, and by anti-Jack, I mean Warren Schmidt is not a charismatic, daring, or knowing man. But tiny explosions of self-awareness have started to burst within him.
Alexander Payne's new bittersweet comedy, About Schmidt, is about this, about Warren's gathering hunger for life, about coming to a point where you think you've achieved your goal, until you realize it's not what you wanted at all.
The film is observant, compassionate, biting, and laugh-out-loud funny, and Payne and his screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, the pair behind the brilliant Election, do not opt for easy answers. Schmidt is an ordinary man struck dumb by the question of whether his 66 years on Earth have mattered.
Movies have traveled this existential highway before; the best of which, curiously, are often Asian, films like Tokyo Story and Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. What's startling is how committed and serious, without boring us, Payne is to exploring what kind of difference one person can make, without shying from uncomfortable truths or succumbing to knee-jerk cynicism.
It's a deeply American movie, or at least close to some ideal of what American movies should aspire to: generous and warm, loopy too, perceptive about the banalities and absurdities of America, all without being cruel. Payne and Nicholson, whose contained, quiet performance is about his finest ever, are not out to blow you through the back of the theater.
But it happens anyway, and the film arrives at a final beautiful image and answer to Warren's crisis of significance, an ingenious, simple answer that detonates with a force as profound as it is moving.
About Schmidt opens with deadpan shots of downtown Omaha, late in the day, the land flat and lifeless. The sidewalks have rolled up for the night. The sky above is a cosmic joke, an impenetrable gray slate to match the city's half-dozen nondescript office towers. It's all very anti-Jack. Warren watches the clock in his office tick-tock to 5. He grabs his suitcase, clicks off his light, and retires from four decades as a middle-management actuary in an insurance company.
He drives home, and since we've been watching the actor's eyebrows dance for four decades, you will be shocked to see what Nicholson's Schmidt finds there: a modest, bland, obedient life, and a Pillsbury-Dough housewife (June Squibb) who is not a supermodel but actually looks Nicholson's age. Nicholson, too, has varicose veins in his feet, a paunch, and a terrible comb-over; he walks with shoulders slumped and the stiff-legged gait of a man shackled to routine. No Jack-o-lantern grins. No devilish eyes.
It is amazing what Nicholson accomplishes. Normally, he holds us with wit and energy, with his embodiment of the perfect movie star, wicked and intelligent, loaded with that you-can't-take-your-eyes-off-him va-va-va-voom. Here he holds us with his absence.
Schmidt is not quite the man Henry David Thoreau meant when he wrote the majority of men lead lives of “quiet desperation.” That would require desire, and Nicholson's character is a good man, but devoid of reflection. Until it's forced on him, that is. His wife dies, and Schmidt, lonely and aimless, calculates he has seven years to live, statistically speaking, a line delivered at once with fact, sadness, and melancholy.
Oddly, one cannot, and probably shouldn't, watch Payne's movie without recalling that drug-fueled cross-country ramble Nicholson took 33 years ago in Easy Rider. There's not a lot of plot here either. Schmidt finds himself alone, without interests or family around, and gives himself a mission: Drive his new Winnebago to Denver and stop the marriage of his daughter (Hope Davis) to a doofus waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney). OK, wait: I fear I'm making About Schmidt sound bleak and bitter.
It isn't. Nicholson's performance, along with a handful of others (particularly Kathy Bates, as an earth mother gone sour), would be reason enough to see this film, but it's Payne who stars, and he emerges as one of our liveliest filmmakers and most clear-eyed storytellers.
He is from Omaha, and more attuned to how people truly are than any director I've seen in years. This guy knows the Midwest; its shirts, hair, and local history museums, the way people talk, how perky exchanges of politeness often smother genuine feeling.
He also sees this middle America as full of complexity and not easily summarized or dismissed; a place comfortable with its boring rituals and often smug morality, yes, but also a land where people like Warren Schmidt form a bedrock, and are deserving of our respect.
Payne made two previous features, Election and the abortion-rights comedy Citizen Ruth. He is often compared with Preston Sturges, the great Hollywood satirist of the 1940s, who cut close to the American bone, without sentiment, in films like The Lady Eve. The comparison is apt; Payne hones in on characters with what can only be called loving brutality. Like Sturges, his tone is often scattered, slapstick one minute, tender the next. But here he brings something to the table Sturges only flirted with in Depression-era comedies like Sullivan's Travels: pathos. What's more, he and Taylor have a remarkable ability to mix comedy and compassion without losing sight of either.
Near the end there's a moment when you expect the old Jack to burst forth, and explode in a way we've watched for 40 years and lay verbal waste to this land of Dairy Queens. I won't say what happens. But I will say an extraordinary transcendent moment of kindness and generosity occurs. Both times I've seen the film I've cried; not just a tear or two, but a river. And both times I've been struck by why I've cried. Movies often go for tears of sadness or sorrow. About Schmidt is about how amazing average people can be. Those tears in your eyes are tears of goodness.