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If there's one thing Alexander Payne does well, it's to make things real. Damn real.
America ain't always pretty. Hollywood often tries to pretend it is, but it really isn't. On the other hand, America ain't always ugly. Hollywood often tries to pretend it is, but it really isn't.
In truth, there's a fine line where things are just kind of real. Most people are indeed average, as would be deduced by the definition of said word. With films like CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION, and now ABOUT SCHMIDT, Alexander Payne has captured that realness onto celluloid like no other filmmaker of recent memory. He doesn't go out of the way to make his characters overly attractive or overly unattractive. He paints them in a way to where you know these people really do exist somewhere. Sure there's a little stereotype in some of them, but stereotypes tend to be rooted in reality anyway.
We go to the movies to escape from reality. But these tales of "Middle America" (hey, they all take place in his home state of Nebraska, that's about as "Middle America" as you can get) that Payne tells entertain nonetheless. I thought both of his previous two features were vastly underrated, so to see the crowd that I encountered in my viewing of his latest was definitely heartwarming.
Jack Nicholson has taken a bold step away from his typical role. His Warren Schmidt is a simpler man than what you may be used to seeing him play. This is the first official "Old Jack" role, if you want to call it that. His character is a recent retiree who has nothing but time on his hands. He's not the most interesting of fellows, and while he puts on a facade of complacency, you can tell that deep down he realizes he hasn't really lived his life. One day on a whim, he finds his solitude in writing letters to an impovershed child in Tanzania. Since Schmidt rarely speaks his mind in public, most of his real thoughts are parlayed through his letters to the boy, Ndugu. It's through these letters we learn of his dissatisfaction with his wife of forty-two years, Helen. It's through them that we learn of his disappointment in his daughter's decision to marry a waterbed salesman. And it's through these letters that a real change occurs in Schmidt, something that the other monumental happenings of life have been ultimately unable to do.
When his wife Helen dies unexpectedly, he realizes just how much he actually depends on her. Unable to take care of himself, he puts his hopes into the idea that his daughter Jeannie will move into the nurturing role that he so requires. Nowhere is this more apparent as when she makes him his lunch right before she is set to return home to Denver. His orders for the specifics of the lunch are quite detailed, and while he's being a real nag, he's not even remotely aware of just how needy he truly is. Finally giving up hope on being able to take care of himself, he decided he's going to come see Jeannie on his own in the 40-foot Winnebago that he and Helen had planned to spend their retirement adventuring in. What results is a road trip that opens his eyes to just how much things mean to him. Of course, even with all this self-discovery, Warren still holds true to his flaws. He's not going to change overnight. But he has learned a little bit more about himself and the people he is surrounded with.
As I mentioned before, Warren's not that interesting. So you'd wonder what the hell would cause you to want to sit through 124 minutes of a character study about him. There's a couple of reasons. First off, Nicholson is brilliant. It's a departure for him, to say the least, and he pulls it off perfectly. Halfway through this thing I'm seriously starting to wonder how this can be the same guy who was so intense in A FEW GOOD MEN and CHINATOWN and THE SHINING. He's amazing, and he's one of the top guns this year when it comes to the awards. The other thing that keeps this tale going so strong are his interactions with the others he encounters. From the resentful encounter with the young man that replaces him in his position at Woodmen of the World, to the emotional meltdown he incurs while encountering a younger couple he meets on the road, to his uneasy friction with his daughter's soon-to-be Mother-in-Law Roberta (Oh yeah, and a warning for that particular encounter: There's gotta be some reason why "Kathy Bates Nude" has become the top search string used to locate this website this month so far).
The movie does tend to drag a bit, however, due to the slower pacing. While I enjoyed it for the most part, it's not something I'd recommend as a repeat viewer. While it does bear a lot of similarities to CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION in that the characters are presented so well and the film flows in a natural, believable manner; it's a very different film from those two. It's not a comedy, first of all. Sure it's funny, and includes several laugh-out-loud moments (the imagery of Warren's menagerie of figurines sliding across the top of his RV is enough to make you bust a gut, and the sound of Jack Nicholson pronouncing the name "Ndugu" never seems to get old), but overall, it's a gleefully disguised tear-jerker. The culmination of it all at the end of the film is enough to swirl the viewer back into that emotional place that they've felt in films that weren't designed to make them laugh at all.
So don't go expecting anything flashy or mindblowing. This film's intents aren't anywhere close to that. But for what it is meant to be, ABOUT SCHMIDT fires on all its cylinders. With great direction, terrific performances, and a great screenplay by Payne (adapted from Louis Begley's novel,) it's worth the price of admission.
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