An actor comes of age in a bleak role
Calling a movie a coming-of-age story usually implies an age less than 66 – and a story a lot less depressing than “About Schmidt.”
Yet, for two bitter hours, that’s exactly what it is – both for its 66-year-old title character, Warren Schmidt, and the man who plays him, 65-year-old actor Jack Nicholson. It fits perfectly with the bevy of sour laughs “About Schmidt” generates: Nicholson’s best performance in decades filled with larger-than-life, over-the-top characters is as a small man who’s bottomed out.
In short, he’s excellent, as are Kathy Bates, Hope Davis and Dermont Mulroney. With all that gushing over and done, I had one major problem with “About Schmidt,” and it has nothing to do with scripts or cinematography or characterization: It just depressed the hell out of me.
The trailers on TV paint “About Schmidt” as a dark comedy, which it is – so long as by “dark” you mean “black.” And there are good, bitter laughs throughout, including Schmidt’s barely-restrained correspondence with his Childcare adoptee, Ndugu, Mulroney’s bizarro behavior and impressive mullet and dysfunctional nuptials that play like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” gone horribly awry.
There’s far more darkness than comedy, though. “About Schmidt” introduces the audience – ready or not – to the loneliness and confusion of the title character’s old age. The Midwestern setting is a perfect compliment to this: Nebraska looks like hell on earth, all flat land and stark, black trees under a dead white sky.
Is “About Schmidt” what getting old is like? I’m not even old enough to remember Jack Nicholson playing characters who weren’t amalgams of his previous roles mixed with a shot of self-parody. But “About Schmidt” does for Nicholson what the hyper-real Dogma school did for filmmaking: It brings it back to the basics. Deprived of his usual tricks – say, turning into a wolf and chasing Michelle Pfeiffer – he’s using his extraordinary skills to play an ordinary guy. His right eyebrow alone should get a supporting-actor nomination. And it’s worth mentioning I totally bought June Squibb as Schmidt’s wife. After all, Schmidt is 66 and Nicholson’s 65 – about 15 years past midlife crisis territory, and somebody like Pfeiffer would have cheapened its unflinching realism.
There’s a lot I liked about “Schmidt.” It’s engrossing, touching, perversely funny (and just plain perverse, if you have the same hangup as me about seeing Kathy Bates naked), all at the same time. But be warned: It’s a cold, hard February slice of honesty about how lonely the world can be. I couldn’t handle the truth.
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