Alexander Payne’s latest film, About Schmidt,is less than the sum of its quirky parts
Alexander Payne’s quirky About Schmidt arrives bearing considerable prestigious baggage: Jack Nicholson playing against type, Louis Begley’s prize-winning novel as a source, a certain daring in its patently bleak subject matter—and so the warm reception it’s gotten in the national media comes as no surprise.
The favorable reviews may say more about the dismal climate of present-day American moviemaking than it does about any of the film’s excellences. For while Payne’s Schmidt is an admirably offbeat film with several elements of unusual interest, it is also an oddly ambitious production whose whole is something less than the sum of its variously remarkable parts.
Nicholson plays the title character, Warren R. Schmidt, a 60-something Midwesterner who has just retired from his desk job as an assistant vice-president with an insurance company in Omaha. Warren is already having vague doubts about the worth of his blandly industrious career and life, when his wife suddenly drops dead while doing housework. The loss of his drably conventional spouse accelerates a personal crisis and increases his alarm and dismay over the impending marriage of his only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), to a doofus of a waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney).
The dimensions of Warren’s crisis, and of his muddled self-perceptions, are sketched out through a series of diary-like letters to Ndugu, an African orphan to whom he is providing financial support via an international-aid program. Warren’s hit-and-miss soul searching is the central narrative thread, but a good deal of the film is given over to an erratically energetic, and occasionally very dark, comedy of Midwestern manners.
There’s also a bleak little road movie worked into it, with solitary Warren roaming parts of Kansas and Nebraska in his Winnebago. And much of what sticks in the memory is a matter of set pieces, most of which are rather half-baked—Warren’s mishaps on a waterbed, a failed seduction in a hot tub, a candle-lit shrine with Hummel figurines on top of the Winnebago, a tragicomic dinner scene at an RV camp, and assorted awkward and embarrassing speeches at the wedding, the funeral, and the retirement party. Each of these episodes has distinctive points of interest, but overall there is disappointingly little in the way of revealing cumulative effect.
Nicholson’s nicely subdued performance is technically sharp throughout, but the feeling persists that he is somewhat miscast in this role. At the very least, the impish element in Nicholson’s basic screen presence puts him at peculiar odds with the repressed, self-submerged character of Schmidt.
And the movie itself seems somewhat uncertain about what to do with Schmidt’s story. Davis, Mulroney and Kathy Bates (who plays Randall’s rowdily overbearing mother) all do good work, but Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor seem to be hedging their bets: About Schmidt has the stuff of scathing satire in it, but it keeps wobbling back into a mode of comedy whose tenderness is insistent but not always convincing.