Jack Nicholson takes to the road again in Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt," but we are a long way away from "Easy Rider." Now he's driving a Winnebago, he's alone and nothing comes easy. Paunchy, with varicose veins in his ankles and a bad comb-over, Warren Schmidt is a just-retired, just-widowed Omaha insurance actuary facing mortality in an empty home. "About Schmidt," I should add, is a comedy. But its laughs--and there are many--arise from loss and pain, and you may leave in tears.
In need of a mission, Schmidt sets off to Denver hoping to persuade his only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), to back out of her imminent wedding to water-bed salesman Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), an affable lunkhead with a mullet and an entirely unwarranted optimism about his prospects. With no one to talk to, Schmidt takes to writing letters to his pen pal, Ndugu, a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy whom he sponsors for $22 a month. These voice-over letters, often at odds with reality, are a brilliant stroke, allowing us to overhear Schmidt wrestling with his dawning awareness of the emptiness inside him.
This is not the Nicholson you're used to. It's startling when you see him with his small, gray-haired wife (Jane Squibb) at his retirement party, because you never see Nicholson paired with a woman his own age. Audiences expecting the devilish "Jack" to burst out are in for a surprise. The sardonic wit is replaced by the stunned confusion of a man realizing that his life has added up to zilch. This powerfully contained, painfully funny performance has to rank with the greatest work he's ever done.
It takes a little time to find your way inside Payne's movie, which is in no hurry to wow you. Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, who gave us "Citizen Ruth" and the brilliant high-school satire "Election," are working in a quieter vein here--and a deeper one. Under its deceptively flat, Nebraskan surface it has a delayed-release emotional charge as devastating as that of any American film this year.
Payne and Taylor have great ears for the way Middle Americans talk, for the smokescreens of cant and bonhomie that disguise real feelings. Though the film is nominally based on Louis Begley's novel (in which Schmidt is a Manhattan attorney), it's been thoroughly reinvented. And it's by no means a one-man show. Davis is pitch-perfect as Schmidt's resentful daughter, a tiny, tightly wound bundle of rage. Mulroney is hilarious without lapsing into caricature as her cloddish fiance. "About Schmidt" reaches its comic peak when Schmidt arrives in Denver, where Randall Hertzel's divorced mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates), a libidinous bohemian, wants to lure the widower into her hot tub. (She's the run-to-seed descendant of Nabokov's Charlotte Haze.) Roberta is the sort of woman who would describe herself as a "free spirit," but Bates, in a piercing performance, shows us the alcohol-fueled fury within.
Payne's comedy can make you squirm because he cuts so close to the bone of middle-class family dysfunction. But the acid satire is balanced by a compassion that saves the movie from cruelty. In one unforgettable scene, Schmidt comes on to a married woman (Connie Ray) in a trailer park. She's seen into his soul, and he's so moved and aroused that he misinterprets her interest as a sexual invitation. We laugh at her exaggerated cheeriness and her pop-psychology jargon. But all her perceptions about Schmidt are true, and you can see why he's drawn to her. This scene is a perfect example of Payne's uncanny ability to wed hilarity, humiliation and heartbreak in a single moment. This road movie gives you emotional whiplash, and you'll be glad you went along for the ride.