November 3rd, 2002
If an actor is fortunate, they will find one part in their career that is indelibly theirs. A part that you cannot imagine anyone else playing. Even if others were considered. Or cast. Try as I might, I cannot see Ronald Reagan playing Rick in "Casablanca," or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones.
Few are able find two or three roles that will forever be theirs. Harrison Ford and Gene Hackman spring instantly to mind. However, there is no actor working in film today who has the uncanny ability for selecting characters that fit them like a glove quite like Jack Nicholson. And in "About Schmidt," Nicholson has found his best character since Randle Patrick McMurphy.
Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a retiring actuary for Woodmen of the World Insurance in Omaha, the company he has spent his entire working career with. An organized and efficient man, he sits in his office on his final day at work, his life's work boxed up behind him, waiting patiently for the clock to strike five. But leaving Woodman means leaving his entire identity. Being at home every day and night is making him question everything. After forty two years of marriage, who the hell is this old woman whom he sleeps next to every night? Why is his daughter Jeannie marrying a loser waterbed salesmen? Who is he? His days are lonely, and all he has to look forward to is a trip with his wife in a recently purchased motor home. His funk with life only deepens when, after paying a visit to his former office finds him being politely blown off by his much younger successor, he finds the boxes of his work files sitting in the trash. So despondent has Warren become, he takes on sponsorship of a young orphan from Tanzania named Ndugu though a television advertised organization. Unable to communicate with his family or contemporaries, Warren spends hours in his home office writing letters to Ndugu, venting his frustration.
Life isn't done with Warren. Just as he feels his life cannot possibly get worse, he's hit with two incidents that leave him alone and confused. His escape is to climb into the Winnebago his wife wanted to purchase against his own wishes and takes a road trip around the Nebraska of his youth, on the way to his daughter's wedding in Denver, where she now lives. The journey is short, as most of his childhood places have been torn down and converted into areas of commerce. Things get no better in Colorado, where Warren meets his soon-to-be in-laws. By the day of the marriage, all Warren wants is to know is that he mattered to someone.
Reading back on the past few paragraphs would lead to believe this is one of the most depressing movies you'd never want to see. And you'd be wrong. For we are under the rapurous guidance of the incredibly talented team of writer Jim Taylor and writer/director Alexander Payne. Anyone who has seen this duo's previous works, "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," are fully aware of Taylor and Payne's unique gifts of satarizing the seemingly ordinary. Like Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson last year with "The Royal Tenenbaums," Taylor and Payne should see success outside of the arthouse with their strong and assured third feature.
As great a performance as Mr. Nicholson gives, his supporting cast is ready to equal his challenge. Kathy Bates as Roberta, the free spirited mother of Warren's future son-in-law, takes what easily could have been a one dimensional role and makes an indeliable mark upon the film. Like Sylvia Miles in "Midnight Cowboy" or Beatrice Straight in "Network," Bates is only on screen for a few moments, and like those strong characters, her Roberta owns the screen every second she appears. As her son Randall, Dermot Mulroney takes another huge step towards a long lasting career with a subtle, nuanced performance as a perpetual loser who never realized he'll never have any glory days. Hope Davis, who has already commanded the screen in a number of smaller independent projects, finally gets her moment to shine for a much larger audience, and her Jeannie will break your heart. Additional kudos go to Howard Hesseman and Len Cariou during their all-too-brief appearances, as well as former "Buffy" big bad Harry Groener and Connie Ray as a couple Warren meets at a campground during his travels.
"About Schmidt" will no doubt end up in my personal top ten list of the year. It is a triumph of acting and filmmaking that should not be missed. I give it an A+ for effort and an A+ for execution. A true work of art.
My rating: A+