About Schmidt

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, December 12, 2002


Consumer Alert: "About Schmidt," which opens in a limited run on Friday to qualify Jack Nicholson for a likely 12th Oscar nomination, is not the comedy that its artfully edited trailer suggests.

"About Schmidt" is not a bad movie, but it's wisest to keep your expectations low. It's the melancholy and plodding story of a newly retired Omaha insurance actuary pondering the meaning, if any, of his life. While most humor is funnier when seen in context, this movie somehow manages to leach most of the laughs out of bits that are sidesplitting when seen in isolation.

Writer-director Alexander Payne (best known for Reese Witherspoon's "Election") grew up in Omaha, but rushed off to pursue higher education at sunny Stanford, UCLA, and Salamanca. In "About Schmidt," Payne returns home to poke gentle fun at Nebraska, a concept that turns out as dreary as it sounds.

Left at loose ends, Schmidt climbs into his beautiful new 35 foot Winnebago to visit Nebraska's sights, such as they are. In Payne's version of Nebraska scenery, there's nothing to see and nothing to keep you from seeing it.

Still, Payne can't work himself up to attack his home state savagely enough to be entertaining. Thus, he depicts practically everyone in the Great Plains as having an IQ of about 92 -- not smart enough to be interesting, but not stupid enough to be funny.

The exception is the actuary's prospective son-in-law, a knuckleheaded waterbed salesman played amusingly by Dermot Mulroney. Schmidt doesn't want Mullet Man to marry his only child, a shipping clerk portrayed by 38-year-old stage actress Hope Davis, so he tries to break up the nuptials.

It seems clear, though, that this wedding would be his last chance for grandchildren. Having children can be a difficult decision, but everybody wants grandchildren. Unfortunately, that basic fact of life seems to have escaped Payne.

By making Nicholson's character an actuary, Payne signals to us that he may have wasted his life. After all, what could be more useless to humanity than making millions of statistical calculations about the expected lifespans of customers? All that accomplishes is keeping a huge life insurance company from going broke and leaving tens of thousands of widows and orphans penniless.

My father had a job like that. He spent much of his 40 years as a stress engineer at Lockheed staring at photos of metal fatigue. A pointless occupation, except that it kept airliners' wings from snapping off in flight.

Moviemakers tend to hold the childish assumption that the only careers that matter are the ones whose results can easily be seen: fireman, cop, architect, and the like. For many other jobs, the only way to visually portray their impact is to play alternate universe games -- have an angel show Jimmy Stewart what Bedford Falls would have looked like if he hadn't slaved away at Bailey Building and Loan all those years.

In the real world, the impact of many careers can only be assessed statistically. Filmmakers don't think probabilistically, but, more than any other professionals, actuaries do. And that's why they take a fierce pride in their work, something Payne never grasps.

Most of the interest in the movie stems from casting Jack Nicholson as a fat and bald 66-year-old. In reality, of course, Nicholson is a fat and bald 65-year-old. Actually, being pudgy and sparse on top has long been one of his trademarks. Jack doesn't have to get a toupee or a fitness trainer like a normal Hollywood star, because he doesn't have to play by the rules. He's Jaaaaack!

Nicholson became an icon in 1970 when in "Five Easy Pieces" he cleverly humiliated a middle-aged waitress over some toast. Ever since, he has been a hero to millions of people for embodying on and off the screen the concept that some people are just so cool that the ordinary standards of human decency don't apply to them.

There's absolutely no denying Nicholson's formidable technical skills, but it's hard to decide how good his performance is here. He's receiving terrific reviews for portraying a dull dog of a fellow, an anti-Jack without the energy, charisma, and confidence. But is all it that great an accomplishment to turn off what makes you a star?

By playing Schmidt as a blank, Nicholson allows viewers to project their own emotions onto the screen. That's why so many of the film's positive reviews contradict each other about what the movie is saying. This Rorschach blot audience-participation approach isn't my favorite way to make a movie, but more than a few will enjoy "About Schmidt."

Rated R for some language and brief nudity. Consumer Alert #2: the nudity involves Nicholson and Kathy Bates, combined age 119.

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