BY NEIL FAUERSO
If nothing else, About Schmidt is revolutionary as one of the first times that an actor of the old guard of sexual prowess has played his age. Jack Nicholson, 65, plays Warren Schmidt, 66. And even if the lives of Nicholson and his character couldn’t be more different, they are linked by age and lineage—the psychic jowls of old-manism.
About Schmidt, the transcendent new comedy from whip-smart Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth), resonates throughout with the liberation of honesty. Unsentimental, hard, and deliriously funny, About Schmidt is the first film since You Can Count on Me to make everyday life so sad and rapturous.
Warren Schmidt, just retiring from a life of insurance sales, feels very little joy. At his retirement party, he skips out to the bar and grimly orders a vodka gimlet. When his wife surprises him with breakfast in their new monstrous RV, all he manages is a faint nod.
Then tragedy strikes, and all the crutches Schmidt has relied on—however halfheartedly—are gone. Filling the void are two new activities: writing autobiographical letters to an African boy named Ndugu, whom he is sponsoring, and stopping his daughter from marrying a mustached, ponytailed doofus named Randall (a smashingly self-deprecating Dermot Mulroney).
The depth of About Schmidt comes from the details. Payne, a native of Omaha, gets all the sickly sweet details of Midwestern life terrifyingly right. Randall’s family is an ungodly fusion of white trash and new age, and the atmosphere of those scenes brims with such a startling hyperbolic familiarity that one cannot help but squirm.
And that’s not even mentioning the performances. Jack Nicholson, for the first time in arguably 27 years, loses the egomaniacal mugging and delivers a brave, bristling performance. Grumpy, absurdly straight, and definitely old, Nicholson’s Schmidt comes to terms with his own insignificance with humor and biting sadness. And then there’s Kathy Bates: Oscillating between cheerful new-agey charm and vitriolic rage, she is a revelation. The hot tub scene between her and Schimdt, who is looped on Percodan, is one of the great comedic moments in recent memory.
Ultimately, About Schmidt is startlingly forceful. The ending, in which Payne—usually a little too smart for his own good—and Nicholson work together in a moment of massive elegiac empathy, is enough to take the wind out of you. Not that there’s any left after a movie this funny, shrewd, and slyly entertaining.