About Schmidt

dir. Payne

Opens Fri Jan 3

Various Theaters

Warren Schmidt has just retired from a long career at an Omaha insurance company. Ostensibly, he is polite, dedicated, old-fashioned--a relic of Midwestern values. But underneath lies a man duped by his own perception of control, a man stuck in a life of habit and red-handed with denial. He is a walking incarnation of his haircut: the combover.

Alexander Payne's latest feature (and the follow-up to 1999's terrific microcosmic study Election) is a devastating portrait of an aging man (played by Jack Nicholson) and his unfulfilled expectations in life. Part character study, part road movie and part comedy of misadventure, About Schmidt is one of the most depressing and exciting films I've seen this year.

Without his work, Schmidt's focus turns to his pride and joy, his daughter (Hope Davis), who is planning her wedding to a Denver waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney), whom Schmidt finds beneath her. When his wife, a nagging old bird to whom he's married only by routine, dies suddenly, he finds himself alone and helpless. This is a man who has followed all the rules to the letter his entire life, and when order escapes, he takes to the road in a deluxe Winnebago to try to gain some perspective.

Meanwhile, we get deeper into his psyche through letters to Ndugu, a boy Schmidt sponsored after falling for one of those late-night starving-child TV commercials. It's in these letters that we really see his rosy introspection--a re-telling of reality and an almost pathetic naivete. Seeing Schmidt wallow and waddle through the world, the weight of his own impotence wearing on him is sad, but Jack Nicholson is perfect in the role, and could very well get himself an Oscar nomination for it. Not only is it brave for this aging sex symbol to play a man, well, his own age, but that he revisits the road movie he helped stamp into inconic immortality with Easy Rider is astonishing. If that was the film that defined the spirit and rebellion of the Boomer generation, this is the film that puts the final nail in its coffin. But its message is not one of hopelessness, rather an exhilarating call to arms to kick social expectations to the ground and do what makes us happy.