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Come back, Jack

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[Photo: New Line]
Jack Nicholson plays insurance underwriter Warren Schmidt, who finds life suddenly empty upon his retirement.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 2, 2003

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About Schmidt is long and tedious. It's also a waste of Jack Nicholson's talents.

Jack Nicholson fans accustomed to that instant in every movie when Jack becomes JACK won't find it in About Schmidt. The role of retired insurance underwriter Warren Schmidt doesn't call for angry outbursts or suggestive eyebrow moves. At 65, Nicholson finds himself portraying a man one year older, nearly playing his age but not to his advantage.

The eyebrows are hibernating in Alexander Payne's occasionally tedious character study. The devil-may-care hairline is disguised by a desperate comb-over. Forget the killer smile. Everything that made Nicholson an icon is ignored in About Schmidt, defiantly so, to the point where even the actor's most devoted fans -- count me among them -- will admire his self-control more than the results.

Warren Schmidt would be a tall order for any actor, especially one as cannily rambunctious as Nicholson at his best. It is a notable stretch for someone with such a full life to play a character so empty. For much of his 66 years, Warren has been going to work and leading his family. When both are taken away by retirement and the inevitable, Warren takes quiet, tentative steps to accomplish something lasting before he dies.

One step is to sponsor a poor Tanzanian child named Ndugu through one of those late-night infomercials. For $22 per month or 72 cents per day, Warren gets someone he can vent to through letters. He never considers that Ndugu probably can't read English or care about Warren's retirement depression. The letters, with their veiled truths and Nicholson's dry narration, drop tiny details about Warren's fears and faint hopes.

Perhaps About Schmidt would be more satisfying if Warren and Ndugu were the only characters. Anyone knowing Payne's work in Election and Citizen Ruth knows that won't happen. The screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor brushes Warren against people more colorful (therefore more interesting) than he is. Warren embarks on a road trip to Denver to stop the wedding of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and a mullet-hair waterbed salesman named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney).

Maybe Payne's film would be more compelling if Randall weren't such an obvious dolt and Warren didn't have good reason to rescue his daughter. Her blindness to Russell's stupidity is incredible for such an obviously smart character. There also doesn't seem to be any reason Jeannie would run from her parents into a marriage. We're compelled to hope that Warren succeeds, yet he's so aloof and flinty that the hope never quite achieves sympathetic proportions.

The upstaging of Warren doesn't end there. Kathy Bates contributes the only liveliness to the film as Randall's eccentric mother, Roberta, an old hippie attracted to Warren. Bates charges through this otherwise listless film in fine form. The widower is appalled by her advances, including a nude dip in a hot tub, worthy of applause for Bates' plus-sized courage.

Yet, Warren's reaction to Roberta doesn't jibe with a later scene when the old man makes a pass at another man's wife in an RV campground. Does he have sexual yearnings or not? The 10-minute sequence with that couple passes and we wonder why it was ever included. Same goes for a visit to a Dairy Queen that is probably just another of Payne's homages to Midwestern courtesy.

Viewers will watch About Schmidt, constantly wishing that the movie were shorter or funnier or more acerbic or anything other than what it is. Nicholson's disciplined performance suits the movie's purpose, I guess, but it doesn't do much to excite our emotions. Even when Warren finally cracks in the final shot, we're not certain if it's because his goal of meaning something has been achieved or that Payne is being cynical that he ever tried. About Schmidt isn't about much.

About Schmidt

  • Grade: C-plus
  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Cast: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, Howard Hesseman, June Squib, Len Cariou
  • Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley
  • Rating: R; profanity, nudity, sexual situations
  • Running time: 124 min.

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