The hardest part of reviewing “About Schmidt” is ignoring the temptation to use the pun, “Schmidt happens.” But oh how shit does happen in Alexander Payne’s follow-up to the 1999 acidic satire of high school politics, “Election.”
“About Schmidt” essentially amounts to a road trip for the Centrum Silver age set wherein Payne replaces rowdy, horny teens with an old man whose life is empty and sad. Well, maybe the film’s true nature is a bit deeper than that analogy would imply, but the main plot begins when the title character, played to curmudgeonly perfection by Jack Nicholson, sets out on the road in a series of misadventures exposing the utter lameness of middle middle America – the first middle referring to the setting’s geographical location and the second one describing the just-above white trash, RV-owning economic class to which everyone in the movie seems to belong.
Nicholson adds the entry “miserable old man” beneath “hard-boiled detective,” “mental patient,” “murderous hotel manager” and “evil clown supervillain” on his list of masterfully performed roles. He is Warren Schmidt, whom the audience watches through various stages of his dwindling final years: retirement, widower-hood and wanderer of the open road.
Warren exudes an understated dissatisfaction for those around him. He resents his wife (June Squibb: chirpy, emasculating and quickly dead from a brain clot), his daughter (Hope Davis: constantly whining) and her mattress salesman fiancŽe (Dermot Mulroney: upstaged by his balding, pony-tailed mullet). The mom from “The Torkelsons” and the evil mayor from “Buffy” round out the supporting cast, along with Kathy Bates, who should be commended both for her deft comic timing and willingness to appear topless onscreen in all her zaftig glory. Yes, that Kathy Bates. And yes, topless.
The underlying darkness that punctuated every joke in “Election” returns, as both Payne and Jim Taylor wrote the two screenplays. And, also like “Election,” the film is seldom laugh-out-loud funny, instead being a consistent chuckle-generator. Sure, there’s a few good gags about starving children in Africa or Warren purposely purchasing the second least-expensive coffin for his wife, but most college-aged audiences will probably leave the theater having busted nary a gut. Perhaps the jokes will be funnier for us in 60 years or so, when we are also dissatisfied with the net result of our lives and can better identify with Warren.
What “About Schmidt” has that “Election” or its predecessor “Citizen Ruth” do not is moments of genuine sentimentality. The dark humor subsides for brief, teary interludes in which, for example, the audience sees Warren perched atop his RV at night, surrounded by an audience of Hummel figurines and lit candles, speaking in vain to his dead wife.
The film is already generating the kind of buzz that usually results in some kind of award, and deservedly so. Well-acted, subtly written and surprisingly poignant, “About Schmidt” is good. You just feel kind of bad watching it.