After watching the scene the photo above was
taken from, my dad - who has been bragging
constantly about his upcoming retirement, turned
to me and said, "maybe I should step down slowly
for a few years, instead of jumping ship." Ahh,
the power of film.
Review written by: Alex Sandell
*Note* This review contains minor spoilers, none of which weren't already revealed in the advertising for the film.
Jack Nicholson. Alexander Payne. If you're into quality film, those two names together in the same paragraph should have you doing cartwheels in puddles of your own saliva. Nicholson gave us some of the most unforgettable acting performances of the 20th century in films such as, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chinatown, As Good As It Gets, The Shining, Terms of Endearment, Hoffa, A Few Good Men, Five Easy Pieces and, The Cry Baby Killer. Well, maybe not, The Cry Baby Killer, but we all have to start somewhere. Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker turned out to be the only memorable thing to come out of the Batman series, other than the goofy rubber suits assorted actors wore in lieu of beefing up to play the title character. And Nicholson didn't disappear into a shelter with a decade's worth of Spam, PowerAde and dry bread, after paranoia over the Y2K bug began to run rampant in 1999. Instead, he brought us one of his most haunting performances ever in 2001's overlooked, The Pledge.
Okay, so Nicholson's obviously the best actor ever, and you fans of quality film are probably beginning to salivate, but have the cartwheels started yet? Let me motivate you with the brief cinematic history of About Schmidt's co-writer and director, Alexander Payne. Payne made his first big splash in 1996, with the unquestionably brilliant send-up of the divisive abortion issue, Citizen Ruth. Payne co-wrote and directed the controversial film, and managed to make both the rabid pro-choice and pro-lifers look like complete dweebs in less than two hours. Those of us not infected with rabies simply guffawed over a topic that is usually only whispered about, or never brought up, outside of the confines of confessionals and doctor's offices. To actually follow-up, and then top, Citizen Ruth was to be no easy task, but, after an absence of just over three years, Payne managed to do so with 1999's, Election. Long-time readers of my reviews will remember that, over a month before its release, I couldn't shut up about what a great film Election was. When I finally reviewed the movie, I wrote one of the most gushing critiques in Juicy Cerebellum history. Today I own it on DVD and have probably watched it over 10 times. I would have watched it more, had it not been for all of those Jack Nicholson films that are in constant rotation on my player. Sometimes I have found myself wondering what would happen if the two talents merged? It could never happen, could it?
Like a film lover's fantasy game ("if you could pick any director to work with any actor, who would you choose?"), the paths of the best actor of the past 50 years and one of the brightest new talents of the last decade have finally crossed, and they have brought us, About Schmidt.
You can do those cartwheels, now.
About Schmidt finds itself in familiar territory for co-writer and director, Alexander Payne. It centers on a character whose life is at a crossroads, and at the end of each road there looks to be nothing more than a lonely and excruciating death and a funeral that no one even bothers to attend. Warren Schmidt has just retired, and his wife, Helen (June Squibb), who is beginning to grate at him after 40-plus years of marriage, drives him to "adopt" a foster son in a far off land, for a meager $22.00 a month contribution, that will be used to help feed, educate and clothe the boy, while giving Warren Schmidt a refuge from his pesky spouse and someone for him to communicate with, through letter writing (ignore the fact that the child is only six, and can't read. Warren does.). After filling a letter with particularly spiteful scribbling about his wife, and how tired of her he is, Warren promptly seals it up and goes out to send it to the six-year-old foster child he has been assigned, named, Ndugu. When Warren gets home, his wife is laying by her dustbuster, dead.
After his wife's untimely death, Warren decides that he can no longer waste the remaining years of his life (he calculates that he has approximately nine years left to live, unless he remarries), and decides he has to stop his daughter, Jeannie's (Hope Davis) marriage to the mullet-headed mattress salesman, Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), which sends him, in the big Winnebago his wife helped purchase for post-retirement adventure, from Omaha to Denver, with plenty of stops along the way, for Payne's eerily observational, dark comedy to take place in. The film truly is "about Schmidt," and I can't recall a single scene where the title character isn't featured.
While Alexander Payne is in familiar territory with his writing and directing of this movie, Jack Nicholson is in unfamiliar land with the constantly showcased character of Warren Schmidt, and I applaud Nicholson for daring to take the role on, and make it his own. Nicholson could have stumbled over this character, and found himself joining the ranks of high-caliber actors and actresses such as Tom Green and Madonna, by bringing himself home a Golden Raspberry Award, instead of his fourth Academy Award as Best Actor, or Best Supporting Actor (three for the former, one for the latter). But, if I had a say, Jack Nicholson would take home yet another Oscar for acting in 2003 -- his fourth in four decades -- thanks to his portrayal of Warren Schmidt.
In About Schmidt, Nicholson finally staples down those pointed eyebrows, softens his devilish grin, lowers his infamous voice, and gives a lonely and subdued performance that would make even the best actors out there green with envy. Nicholson embodies this character, and his sadness and feelings of uselessness ooze from the screen, not with the help of a witty wink and one-liner or an axe through a door, but just with the look of exhaustion, loss or surrender. Jack Nicholson plays the father of the bride who never grows to like the groom. The big fat Greek who never embraces the Catholic at the wedding. The widower who never finds a new lease on life. Just keep telling yourself that it's only a movie, even though you know that your reality outside of the auditorium is going to be uncomfortably close to what you watched inside.
This cinematic reality goes back to the incredible directing and writing ability of Alexander Payne. Payne knows how to develop a character. He knows how to make you believe you've known an individual for years, when you've really only spent a couple of hours staring at the person on an oversized screen. As he did with, Citizen Ruth and, Election, Payne takes great care to breathe life into every character in the film. You feel Jeannie Schmidt's sadness over her father never accepting the man she's getting married to as his son-in-law. You feel Randall Hertzel's desperation when he calls Warren, "dad," hoping so much to become part of the family, but sensing, all the way through that thick skull and mullet-cut of his, that he'll never be called, "son," in return. You feel Roberta Hertzel's (Kathy Bates, in another winning role) pride in the son that Warren is unable to accept. Everyone feels real in this film, and you end up empathizing with each of them, for various reasons.
It's nice to be back in Alexander Payne's world. It's a place filled with an underlying sadness but a pointed sense of humor about all that is melancholy. Jack Nicholson is the landlord of the building that Payne created, and he keeps it very well-maintained. Hopefully, along with Nicholson winning his third Best Actor Academy Award, Payne will finally get the recognition he deserves, by taking home his first award for Best Director. With most movies you walk out and go on with your life; About Schmidt walks out with you, and isn't an easy companion to get rid of. That's true cinema, and this is the kind of film people are looking for whenever they say, "they don't make 'em like they used to." No, with movies like this, they make 'em better.
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Don't miss the Juicy reviews of Chicago, The Hours, Gangs of New York, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist, About Schmidt, Talk to Her, Catch me if you Can, Adaptation, or Narc! Be back for Juicy reviews of Daredevil and The Double-D Avenger, coming soon!
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Text ©(Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].
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