With the number of critics praising About Schmidt and the seemingly universal buzz about Jack Nicholson's performance, I prepared to see a second coming of King Lear with a satirical touch by Alexander Payne. The tongue-in-cheek writer/director created one of the top comedies of the nineties in Election, but About Schmidt ranks as one of the flattest narratives in recent memory—and the most overrated movie of 2002. Instead of falling all over themselves to nominate Nicholson's glib and understated performance, the Academy would be better off serving a Lifetime Achievement award. Virtually sleepwalking through his dimwitted Everyman caricature, Nicholson is capable of so much more—years from now first time viewers will wonder what was so remarkable about this forgettable film.
Payne's satires require the audience to see themselves as somehow superior to the schmucks in his cinematic universe, and this time that requires poking fun at the average Joes who slowly trudge through the working man's treadmill routine—home to work, using the television remote control, eating bland home-cooked dinners, and falling asleep next to a wife who also has established her routines. When 66-year old Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) retires from an Omaha, Nebraska insurance company, he finds his lifetime dedication to the company is quickly forgotten and meaningless. Without a job to go to, Schmidt practices more channel surfing and observes his nagging wife Helen (June Squibb) more closely. "Who is this old woman who is in my house?"
Helen could say much the same thing about the stranger now uneasily free to spend his golden years doing whatever he wants. Other than purchasing a Winnebago, he's clearly never planned for active retirement, and that purchase must have been at Helen's insistence—she's the only one excited about it. Warren continues to meander purposelessly until he is struck by one of those ubiquitous TV ads soliciting for sponsorships to Third World countries where you can feed a child for a mere $22 a month. He sends off a check, ends up "adopting" a six-year old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, and writing the illiterate boy letters that serve as his inner monologues. Payne uses these "letters to Ndugu" as convenient voice-over devices throughout for satirical value and as a cheap sentimental send off—a helluva lot easier to do than devise scenes to show Schmidt's inner character.
When his wife dies suddenly, Schmidt finally takes off in his Winnebago on a voyage of self-discovery. Initially intending to visit his soon-to-be married daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), he first revisits places from his past and travels to others he's always wanted to see. Of course, he discovers that the past is often obliterated, but finds arrowhead exhibits, highway bridges, and tacky pioneering exhibits interesting (an obvious satirical slap at low brow American tourist that take side trips to see such attractions as the world's largest ball of twine).
When an equally clueless woman self-evidently observes that Schmidt is a "sad man," Payne uses it more for a comic moment than any epiphany. Schmidt may have more intentions of seeking happiness, hoping for a better life for his daughter, and observing the banality of others, but he remains fundamentally unchanged, a tedious one-note acting performance that had me wondering why I hadn't followed gut instincts in the first half hour and walked out of the theater.
Had Payne failed to include Kathy Bates' contrasting character, the last hour would have been superfluous. Most of the pleasures from the film lie with her supporting role as a free-spirited middle-aged divorcee who retains her sexual passion and can curse up a storm. Still I could have done without Bates' baring it all for the hot tub scene—not that everyone appearing in movies needs to have a beautiful body, but here it seems that Payne is again going for a cheap laugh instead of getting inside her character.
And that's the main problem with the whole film. It's little more than a lightweight satire about the average life of a typical Midwesterner that shows no affection for its characters like Fargo does. After one scene the joke is understood, and it's time to move on, but Payne subjects us to a full two-hour acting performance where Jack Nicholson is obviously acting. Not his fault—the screenwriting doesn't give his character much room to show the internal aspects.
Many will praise Nicholson for personifying a different, subdued character, rather than his usual more energetic roles, but don't believe them. Nicholson is good enough to play this shallow cardboard character without 25+ takes to wear him down, but it's a one-note routine that likely has Jack winking and smiling wickedly in amazement that the critics have been duped by such a simplistic skit. A comedy about such an Everyman character need not have the poignancy and depth of Death of a Salesman, but it should work harder to make that character multi-layered and endearing. At best About Schmidt is a forgettable mediocre comedy. The shockingly high marks it's getting is most frightening because this will only encourage more clones of the same nature, and there's far too much latent talent available to settle for exercises in lazy screenwriting.