There is a touching scene in About Schmidt where Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), having lost his wife, mindlessly ransacks his house. He pauses mid-rampage when he catches the scent of her cold cream. He wipes some on his face, experiencing a trace of his late wife’s humanity. Then he stops in the closet and smells her shoes.
This beautiful, touching, and honest scene is in a movie I’d really like to see. But About Schmidt isn’t that movie, even with the brilliant Nicholson in the lead.
A Woman’s Touch
R for language, subjects, nudity
The Pledge, starring an aging Nicholson
The film opens on Warren’s retirement from selling insurance in Omaha. He’s had the same job for his whole adult life, and now, at 65, he is expected to change.
With his wife Helen (June Squibb, the first actress in about thirty years to play Nicholson’s spouse who is his age), Warren putters around Omaha, enjoying breakfast, errands, and dinner out. Warren looks forward to the day they can take their 35-foot Winnebago on her maiden voyage, perhaps to see their daughter in Denver.
But early in the film, Helen dies. His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) helps with the funeral, but she has to get back home to prepare for her wedding with Randall (Dermot Mulroney), leaving Warren more alone than he’s ever been in his life.
Without a woman, Warren collapses. He doesn’t shave, he doesn’t clean up after himself, and he doesn’t socialize. His human brain shuts down and the reptilian cortex takes over. When the car won’t start, he drives the gargantuan motor home to the grocery store for milk, still clad in his pajamas.
A few things help Warren bounce back from the edge of despair. For one, he discovers that Helen cheated on him fifteen years ago with a good friend of his. Anger does wonders for despondency.
He has also “adopted” an African child named Ndugu at the behest of Sally Struthers. He begins writing nuggets of wisdom, sifted from his own life story, to this illiterate child half a world away.
Finally, he makes it his mission to keep Jeannie from marrying Randall, a man whom the movie’s promotional materials call “a profoundly mediocre, underachieving waterbed salesman.” After visiting such hot spots such as Holdredge, Nebraska (where he was born), Warren heads to Denver to meet the in-laws, including a trippy-dippy hippie Kathy Bates, who unforgettably joins Warren in her hot tub in her ample birthday suit.
But Seriously, Folks
Screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are working with good material, but too often they miss the mark. Warren is clearly meant to be looking for meaning in his life, but the film feels merely aimless as Warren travels from place to place.
When they try comedy, the Payne and Taylor are even further off the mark. Helen’s death is played with just enough absurdity to cause some audiences to laugh. But at this weighty moment, laughter is inappropriate, and it sends the wrong signal about the movie’s heart.
The same technique backfires many times later in the movie. Every time Nicholson narrates a letter to Ndugu, he begins “Dear Ndugu ... (pause for laughter).” Perhaps the surreal absurdity of writing serious missives to this unsuspecting child is funny once, but after the third time, I feel like I’m being pressured to laugh at a joke that’s gotten old.
Finally, recall that the promotional materials paint Randall in two dimensions: “a profoundly mediocre, underachieving waterbed salesman.” Likewise, the movie paints Randall’s entire family as a series of two-dimensional jokes. Payne sells out these important characters for humor that isn’t even all that funny. A movie that can’t take its minor characters seriously doesn’t deserve someone as good as Nicholson in the lead.
The movie’s strength is Nicholson’s performance. The scene of him smelling his wife’s things evokes so much feeling. And out among the people of Nebraska, Nicholson is able to maintain that profound sense of loss under a pleasant, polite facade. It really is one of the year’s best performances, and maybe one of Nicholson’s best.
But the movie is not Nicholson’s. It is Alexander Payne’s. And characters and situations keep arising that feel Payne-fully out of place in this film that could have been great.
If you decide to skip About Schmidt, check out The Pledge, a more serious film with an equally outstanding Nicholson ruminating on retirement and old age.