by TOM NIXON
Jack Nicholson goes all Bill Murray in two-time Academy Award nominated About Schmidt, grim and stone faced as the world’s familiar absurdities zoom chaotically around him, but the difference is that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is concealing a storm of repressed outrage and fear which occasionally rears its head from under his dulled brow. Speaking of Murray, The Royal Tenenbaums and Broken Flowers are instantly comparable to About Schmidt, a film which shares a penchant for everything from screwball family drama-com to existential road movie, aiming to transcend and satirize genre archetypes via a tone at once understated and drily sad.
Home to perhaps Nicholson’s first classic performance, Five Easy Pieces is another one that comes to mind, and if further proof was needed that Jack ain’t only good at playing campy Jack (it wasn’t), it’s right here for all to see. He’s at his most restrained, draining most scenes of their expected flavor, replacing it with a strangely resigned pathos punctuated with bouts of frustration. Warren Schmidt has just retired, you see, and a speech from an old friend at his retirement party uncovers a nameless ache within him – he has nothing upon which he can look back with pride. He has little in the way of emotional connections; the people around him speak in ridiculous, bland clichés, and he wonders why nobody else realizes this. He’s estranged from everyone, just going through the motions, wondering what positive difference he’s ever made to anybody’s life. Early in the film when his wife dies (her last words the fondly obnoxious “don’t dilly dally”), he instantly feels the hole in a way he never felt her filling it. We expect this, it’s an old cliché, but it takes on new depth when we realize that Schmidt is little more than an absence himself – in death she is closer to him in form than she ever was in life.
Following a discovery that his wife had an affair with a close friend way back when, Schmidt is inspired to take the Winnebago she so loved and drive out to his daughter, taking numerous detours along the way; a man who’s wasted his life defining himself in mundane ways (“insurance actuary”), trying desperately to make up for it despite knowing it’s too late. As in a dream he describes, he spends much of the film jumping up and down trying to save daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) from the encroaching horror of her marrying a harmless imbecile (Dermot Mulroney) with a mullet, a stupid beard and a really horny mother (Kathy Bates) – but it isn’t about her, it’s about having some lasting effect on a crazy world that’s slipping through his fingers, some way of conquering death by living on in memory.
Warren takes this idea to other more desperate extremes after seeing an advert for “Childreach” on TV, deciding to sponsor Tanzanian child Ndugu via correspondence, sending a check each month along with letters he uses as an outlet. We hear aloud a number of these letters, jumping between avoidant, dishonest descriptions, morose reflections and angry rants – entirely self-indulgent of course. It feels too much like a plot device, an easy way of giving us access to his mindset, but it does highlight just how amusingly pathetic Schmidt really is – plus it gives plenty in the way of emotional payoff at the end. The thing with Schmidt is that he wouldn’t be likable if he wasn’t Jack Nicholson, with all the potential charisma that actor implies. He’s a failure and a self-absorbed, patronizing failure at that, but there’s an ironic awareness about this self-deprecation when it comes from Nicholson, forcing us to take an interest in a character we wouldn’t otherwise like watching.
Made both poignant and quietly funny by the drained, frowning man at its center, About Schmidt is only really held back by the sense that, much like Schmidt’s Winnebago, we’re going down the same old soul-searching roads. There are moments that shouldn’t work but really do (take Schmidt’s decision to urinate standing up, or the expected ending scene), then there are moments that shouldn’t work and don’t (the letters to Ndugu in particular) – there are hardly any moments that should work, as almost every scene is already established in the cinematic lexicon and feels like it’s in quotation marks. The film’s glory lies outside any fundamental originality, then, relying purely on Nicholson’s performance, full of feeling in a world of empty caricatures. The old worn roads are partly built anew through his lonely eyes.