There's a quiet insurgency brewing inside the kettle of About Schmidt, and we know this the moment an emotionally lobotomized Jack Nicholson sits through the motions of his retirement banquet as an Omaha insurance actuary: the tired speeches, the cookie-cutter salutations, that frumpish wife sitting next to him. It's a hilarious inside joke we share with him, an empathic reminder that sometimes the world we surround ourselves with can grind the life out of us. Nicholson is attuned to a tee towards this feeling, and you don't need to see Easy Rider beforehand to guess he's embarking on a soul-searching journey to fill in the blanks of his empty existence.
That's not until, of course, that frumpish wife of his finally drops dead (literally) does Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) resolve to make amends in his 66-year-old life. Ostensibly, his particular quest is reuniting with level-headed, but disappointed daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) in Denver to stop her marriage to dopey waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Randall's occupational destiny is mere icing to this monumental fruitcake of nincompoop-ism: He sports a ponytailed mullet and a ridiculously bushy goatee, not to mention pitching pyramid scheme investments that roll the eyes of Warren's consideration. Though good-natured in disposition, Randall can't decipher through his own cluelessness; his hilarious knack of blundering etiquette in front of an embarrassed and bewildered Warren.
Before, during, and after his Winnebago-style odyssey, Warren pens some hysterically confessional letters to Tanzanian orphan Ndugu, one of those starving African kids he whimsically sponsors after channel surfing one night. The words "Dear Ndugu," as Nicholson drones in letter-writing voiceover, packs more hilarity than anything else in this film. And though these "Dear Ndugu" letters poke fun at Warren's self-absorption, they also lampoon our own gleeful numbness towards alternative paths of high-minded fulfillment. Those infomercials about starving kids or Tony Robbins (Warren awakes one morning with a Tony Robbins book lying on his chest) may be marginalized by our culture to the point of taboo. But it's worth noting that Ndugu, a million miles away from Warren as all those kids appear to be on TV, eventually becomes Warren's lone path to salvation.
When Warren finally reaches Denver he endures a rubbing of the elbows with Randall's equally trailer trash family. Kathy Bates is prominently tawdry as Randall's sexually spry divorced mom Roberta. The hot tub scene where she bares all typifies the unbelievable slapstick lengths this film's willing to reach for. Jeannie's oblivion towards this Twilight Zone of a family is made credible through our understanding of Warren's penny-pinching-through-life background. Randall and his familial crew might be the sloppy joe burgers of society, but Warren betters them merely as a cold cut sandwich in the food chain of life.
Much has been made about the subtlety in Nicholson's performance. No raised eyebrows, no devilish grin from Nicholson, yada yada yada. But the tangibility of that persona is what packs the oomph behind the punchlines of Warren's adventure. It's an awareness that smoldering beneath Warren's droopy-eyed visage is Randle P. McMurphy, itching to bust out of this humdrum looniness to set things straight in this world. Nicholson does well neutering that bouncing-off-the-wall energy of his, molded now into the lethargic clay that is Warren Schmidt. But the devil-may-care Nicholson that we know is what truly clinches our conviction for his character's drab disposition.
By the end of About Schmidt however, after all is said and done on Warren's part to rescue Jeannie from matrimonial calamity, a kicker of a final scene crystalizes the whole shebang of his mission's objective. The fact that up until then we had been amused by this seemingly comic ploy is what staggers us to tears by the ending credits. It's not the final destination for Warren, but it's his first palpable clutch towards that universally transitory thing called gratitude, the kind that swells us up with heart-thumping vitality. Though Omaha-bred director Alexander Payne explores trite American Beauty-esque ground in this film, its small-life pathos can charm the socks off even the most cynical urban-dwelling Scrooges of this world.
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