#12 — About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)
One of the cinematic stands that I’ve taken with some regularity is that Jack Nicholson is the finest actor who made film his primary medium. This argument carries more weight with those who hear his name and have automatic associations with his nineteen-seventies heyday of The Last Detail and Chinatown than it does with the movie fans whose mental reference volumes immediately flip open to the nineteen-nineties section, sullied by fare like Man Trouble and Wolf. While there may be ample evidence for those holding a contrary opinion, I maintain the view, bolstered by the knowledge that, at a time when many of his peers have settled into a procession of paycheck performances in lowest common denominator studio dross, Nicholson can still step up and deliver a piece of acting that demonstrates fearless invention and borderline genius. That’s exactly what he does in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt.

So many of Nicholson’s career high points have involved devilish portrayals of untamed souls, wild men enraptured by their own freedom, that it can be easy to forget that he has an impressive range, particularly for someone who doesn’t tend to bury himself in identity-obscuring make-up or other tricks. Still, while I’ve seen Nicholson give interesting performances in a wide variety of roles, I’m not sure he’s ever played another character as weak as Warren Schmidt. This isn’t to say that Schmidt is a weakly drawn character. On the contrary, Payne and his regular screenplay collaborator Jim Taylor imbue the role with contradictions and self-deluding views. There’s an involving psychological nuance built into the character. Instead, Schmidt himself is a weak man, a man who’s lived a small life, and lived it in unremarkable fashion. The greatest act of rebellion he can muster is stopping at the Dairy Queen for a illicit treat, and even then he can be no bolder than the medium size. He is at loose ends when he retires from his bland insurance industry job, and is further stranded when he suddenly finds himself a widower. With no support from the patterns and safety nets he’s constructed for himself, Schmidt is largely inept at connecting with the world, finding solace only in gently self-aggrandizing letters he writes to the destitute African child he’s agreed to support through an international aid organization. He’s facing down his own mortality and the wrenching disappointment of an uninspired existence. And he’s doing so from the starting point of utter defeat. Nicholson plays all this with tenderness and insight. He may be charged with winning laughs as Schmidt, but he never pushes for them with mugging or other desperate techniques. Instead, he just plays the role honestly.

Of course, it takes more than one great performance to make a great film. About Schmidt has more than one great performance. Using a novel by Louis Begley as a starting point, Payne and Taylor construct a screenplay that merges forlorn poignancy and bleak satire like interlocking fingers. It’s the same scathing comedy that they brought to their previous features, 1996’s Citizen Ruth and 1999’s Election, but tempered by a deeper interest in the characters they put through the wringer. There’s not an affection for them, particularly, but there is a greater willingness to let them grow and breathe and develop as real, recognizable people. They are humbled and hurt by their problems, but they are also facing them, taking them on to the best of their shaky abilities.

That’s a boon to all of the actors. Like Nicholson, they make the most of the meaty material they’re given. As Schmidt’s daughter, Hope Davis finds wellsprings of feeling. She knows she’s settling in life, just the way her father did, and she seethes in frustration, as if she wants to hurry along the compromises just to get them over with. As her unfortunately-coiffed husband-to-be, Dermot Mulroney initially seems to be skewing too close to caricature, a sensation that’s quickly dispelled as it becomes clear that he’s not condescending to his character. Indeed, he’s playing him as arguably the film’s only truly sympathetic person, the kind of guy who emanates almost uncomfortable levels of sweet sincerity as he tries to share the material he used to deal with his aunt’s demise, hopefully asserting that it’ll probably still be helpful even though much of the workbook is already filled in. He’s the only one who’s not jaded, who still views life with any degree of hopefulness. He may appear ridiculous, but the openness of his soul makes him endearing. Adding a cymbal crash to the proceedings is Kathy Bates, playing the sort of brash, pushy character that had become her strongest suit by this point. It’s the epitome of a performance free from vanity, presenting comically hateful behavior as inherent as motherly instinct.

The film is hysterically funny even as the laughs stick in the throat a bit, stifled by the story’s shadows of unhappiness. Payne’s command of tone is the film’s not-so-secret weapon, pulling the humor out of moments large and small, conflicts of high embarrassment and the simple image of Warren Schmidt sipping on his convenience store soda as a conversation with a Native American clerk brings him to the late-in-life, and largely unmoving, revelation that the man’s ancestors got “a raw deal.” Tone is perhaps the most difficult aspect of filmmaking to master, one that eludes many skilled directors. It’s also an aspect that Payne gets precisely right, all the way the film’s perfectly pitched, plainly devastating closing shot.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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