Star not alone feeling empty in `Schmidt'

Nicholson's realization overcome by superficial treatment of rich topic

Movie Review

January 03, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

About Schmidt starts out as a barbed, poignant little movie and turns into an excruciating slow-motion car wreck. It's the story of a retired Omaha insurance executive who faces widowhood, the marriage of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and the creeping realization that he's led an empty life.

Jack Nicholson's crafty performance as Warren Schmidt provides a smidgen of suspense: Will the star's famous (notorious?) energy explode, or will he stay submerged in his role? But when Schmidt takes the wheel of his brand-new trailer and travels to Denver for his daughter's wedding, the movie all too obviously puts Jack in a box - even if the box is Winnebago-size.

When Richard Farnsworth played the hero of David Lynch's marvelous The Straight Story, and set out on a modified John Deere lawn mower for a 300-mile trek through Iowa, his weathered face exuded curiosity for his surroundings and longing for reconciliation with a brother he hadn't seen for a decade.

Nicholson's Schmidt has a similar goal: to connect with a daughter who feels he's neglected her since childhood, and to convince her that she shouldn't marry a crass, confident waterbed salesman named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney).

But the scenario director Alexander Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, have mapped out for Schmidt is only superficially open-ended. In effect, it proves the superiority of Schmidt to nearly everyone around him, because at least he grows to know that his life is empty. Most of them, including his daughter's fiance and in-laws, are just smiling through a Middle American fool's paradise.

Payne and Taylor don't ignite the hilarity and ingenuity in the mini-worlds Americans like Randall can create out of screwy family traditions, get-rich-quick schemes and self-help best sellers. The moviemakers seem to prefer Schmidt's uptightness, even though they poke fun at its hollowness. By the end, the picture seesaws between cheap snickers and cheaper tears.

The opening scenes show glimmers of vitality. During Schmidt's retirement dinner, his best friend (Len Cariou, in a vivid, complex cameo) cuts through the canned bonhomie - he mixes appreciation for his pal's accomplishment with bitterness and disdain for the young glad-handers.

As Schmidt searches for meaningful distractions, he becomes a benefactor and pen-parent to a small Tanzanian boy. The first time he pours out his marital frustrations to young Ndugu, the effect is both baleful and uproarious. Nicholson has rarely been more powerfully ambivalent, and the movie sharpens his twin-edge when Schmidt's wife drops dead. Schmidt tries to ignore his past dependence on her even as the house grows ever-messier. When he discovers a hidden bundle of old love letters, he can't escape the realization that she had a secret side or two.

Unfortunately, as soon as Schmidt hits the road the movie hits the skids - director Payne can't conjure the air of discovery that Lynch brought to every second of The Straight Story. Payne manufactures ersatz moments of humor and revelation. In a piece of relationship slapstick, Schmidt mistakes a married woman's sympathy for romantic opportunity. In a pseudo-epiphany, he reconciles with his wife's spirit when he forms a shrine of Hummel figurines (her favorite collectibles) on top of his trailer at night and then witnesses a shooting star. He visits a tourist site at Fort Kearney that screams out the faded glory of the frontier spirit.

Even worse, when Schmidt reaches the Denver home of his prospective in-laws, the movie becomes a class-and-culture clash. This conventional former executive strives to keep his daughter Jeannie from marrying into an oddball family - and, failing that, tries to hold his tongue and keep the peace.

Part of the problem is, Jeannie is a pill from the start. We don't share Schmidt's interest in seeing this unexceptional woman, who works in a shipping and receiving department and treats her dad like a bad customer, marry anyone more "suitable" than Randall, despite his risible mullet. (His hair is so sparse in the front that I believe his cut is what is now called a "skullet.") Since Mulroney is by far the most amusing performer, viewers may feel he's too good for her.

When Kathy Bates enters the picture as Randall's doting mom, a self-styled bohemian painter who looks down on her ex-husband (Howard Hesseman) and looks forward to spending time with Schmidt, the energy level spikes. But Payne undercuts Bates' vim, playing her Junoesque sensuality for laughs. If the first half pallidly replays The Straight Story, the second poorly imitates the aging-hippie scenes in Flirting with Disaster. This movie fully achieves disaster. Schmidt's letters to Ndugu become a worn-out running joke with an inexcusably sentimental payoff.

Extremely loosely based on Louis Begley's novel of the same name (about a proper New York lawyer), About Schmidt squanders opportunities to wring laughs and tears from the richness and ridiculousness of a 60-something man finally coming of age and wildly different clans merging in marriage. The movie suffers, like its hero, from a streak of snobbery. In the end, it's an oxymoron: an anti-democratic American comedy.

About Schmidt

Starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Dermot Mulroney and Hope Davis

Directed by Alexander Payne

Released by New Line

Rated R

Time 124 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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