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Festival Review

Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis
and Jack Nicholson
About Schmidt
by Jurgen Fauth

Guide Rating -  


Wunderkind director Alexander Payne has a sharp eye for the modern male condition, for the ambitionless and disappointed, the losers and those who never even tried. In "Election," he pitted a wonderfully aging Matthew Broderick against teenage whirlwind Reese Witherspoon, a losing battle if ever there was one. In Payne's new film "About Schmidt," which opened the 40th New York Film Festival on Friday, he pits Jack Nicholson against the world - and ends up with a tie for Jack but a winner for cinema.

Long ago, during the Batman craze and after, I was worried Jack Nicholson would restrict himself to playing a cartoon version of Jack Nicholson: the same obnoxious self-satisfied mugging, with the Joker's grin regardless whether or not he was playing cartoon villains or not. (Take a look at "Mars Attacks," "Wolf", "A Few Good Men," or "Hoffa"). But lately, since "As Good As It Gets" and "The Pledge," a sadness has crept back into Nicholson's performances that undermines the bluster. I am happy to announce, then, that Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt with superior confidence, which is to say without any of the fake confidence. It is a marvelously contained and understated performance, the last thing I was expecting from the man who, at a press conference last week, leaned forward into the microphone to interrupt a colleague asking questions of "Mr. Nicholson" to adjust his shades and growl, "Call me Jack."

Of course, Warren Schmidt has every reason to be subdued: retired from his Omaha, Nebraska insurance job, the former actuary finds himself aimlessly filling in Sunday puzzles and bickering with his wife, inadvertently misquoting the Talking Heads: "Who is that old woman living in my house?" The question is soon answered when a blood clot strikes Helen (June Squibb) down, and Schmidt is left with nothing but the truly gargantuan Winnebago they had bought for his retirement, and his daughter Jeannie (a frumpy Hope Davis), who is about to marry a waterbed salesman of questionable intelligence and taste (Dermot Mulroney).

Schmidt, after weeks of slovenly bachelor living, finally sets out on an odyssey to save his daughter and find himself. The trip across the heartland echoes a similar trip Nicholson undertook more than thirty years ago in "Easy Rider," but the low-riding choppers have morphed into the Winnebago Adventurer, and instead of acid, Schmidt gobbles percodan and sips Miller Light from a can.

It is Alexander Payne's peculiar gift to balance satire with genuine emotion. It seems like a physical impossibility, but somehow, Matthew Broderick was at the same time the heart and the butt of the joke in "Election." Equally touching and pitiful, Warren Schmidt is a hilarious parody of the stereotypical middle American with his "Howdy-dos" and clichéd, pre-chewed attitudes, which he trots out at length in the hilarious voice-over letters to his newly adopted foster child in Tanzania: "Dear Ndugu...." When Payne gives the screw another turn, and the sadness underneath the satire comes into full relief, Schmidt becomes Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders in one person.

The New York Film Festival
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• Bloody Sunday
• The Uncertainty Principle

• Springtime In a Small Town
• Punch-Drunk Love

• Divine Intervention

• Safe Conduct

• Friday Night

• Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary

In the film's most brilliant moment, Schmidt, sitting on top of his RV, watches the night sky and asks his late wife's forgiveness for his failings as a husband. When a shooting star streaks by, his face lights up in disbelief, and he crosses himself. The gesture is at once ridiculous and profoundly touching, the distillation of Payne's admirable balancing of the tragic and the downright ridiculous.

Payne goes at great lengths to leave every character their dignity, and even his goatee-and-mullet wearing son-in-law to-be Randall could be read as a loving, misunderstood sweetheart rather than the absurd idiot Schmidt sees in him. The film belongs squarely to Nicholson, but the entire cast, especially Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, and Kathy Bates as the hard-living hard-swearing hot-tubbing mother of the groom, manages the high-wire act beautifully.

About Schmidt opened the NYFF on September 27 and will be released to selected theaters on December 13. The nationwide opening date is January 3, 2003.

 Related Reviews    Related Resources
• Igby Goes Down
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• More from the 40th New York Film Festival
• Independent Directors
• Film Festivals
• The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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