Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 2:59 pm 
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Jack's back.

About Schmidt'\ reminds one why American Beauty seemed uplifting: it made us see an ordinary man's boring life as something he could toy with and perhaps escape from. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicolson) makes feeble efforts to escape - and once he sets sail in the Winnebago, he can always jump into it and drive off again. But he has no inner wildness to discover. Inside he has perhaps wellsprings of fear, sadness, and rage, but he's neither willing nor able to express them. To call Schmidt's fate in the movie an 'existential crisis,' as some critics have done, is a bit of a stretch.

American Beauty was Kevin Spacey's finest hour, if not his most challenging role. Opinions vary on Jack Nicolson's performance in About Schmidt. Is this the work of a great actor, or the wreck of one, or was he always a great obnoxious scene-stealing ham who's lucked into some terrific roles -- but here simply winks at the audience from behind the befuddled Babbitt he is playing? In About Schmidt, Nicolson surely has moments in which each of these facets appears: we see a great actor, and a burnt out one; a ham, and a celebrity hiding in a role that would be beneath him if it didn't rise to such sublimely nerve-wracking and embarrassing levels of tragicomedy. For the most part the hero of Alexander Payne's movie is simply a thinly disguised but magisterially reposeful Jack Nicolson who in scene after scene holds back or, as A. Lane memorably writes, 'swinishly lolls.'

And this is what the role calls for. One can debate the performance, but it's pretty clear that the cinematic Schmidt is largely a cipher. Inside every Schmidt, it appears, there is a Jack Nicolson violently gesturing to be let out -- but here exercising moments of cunning repression. For an actor as flamboyant as Nicolson to play with great restraint is in itself a form of flamboyance.

Schmidt doesn't wish to face anything, and he doesn't. He tries to escape from almost every moment that calls for active presence. First it's by slipping off for a drink at a bar when his retirement party is going on. Then it's by jumping into the Winnebago when living alone gets rocky. He has shown himself pathetically unable to cope after his wife dies. He has turned against her and his best friend for a short flirtation between them long ago. And he has run away from it all. But in the end he only escapes into drugs (the Percodan Kathy Bates' character gives him for his twisted neck) and fantasies of a paternal relationship with a small African boy he buys foster care for. This is how he buys off his 'existential crisis': he sends off monthly checks to Africa for $22. You could better call this not 'existential crisis' but middle class white guilt. The voiceovers of Schmidt's letters to the boy are the only semblance of a sensibility that the movie offers, and its only resolution is validation of this boy's existence via a letter from a nun in the final scene. There is much sadness in this, but no enlightenment.

About Schmidt indeed is a rather distressing (but nonetheless surefooted) example of what could be called Todd Solandz lite, which was found much more amusingly displayed in Pumpkin* and The Good Girl earlier this year. This time the level of caricature is kept low enough and pervasive enough to be hardly ever funny. The movie offers a quarter of an hour of genuine amusement when Schmidt arrives at his daughter's future mother-in-law's house. Kathy Bates provides some relief from the emptiness of Schmidt's respectable, actuarial existence (he was in insurance in the director's own native Omaha). She swears; she yells at her ex. Her house has a dated hippy charm and the way her New Age sexuality threatens Schmidt is blissful because she also threatens for a moment to take over the screen with her warm presence. The bad taste of the décor is enormously welcome here after the Fifties colonial neutrality of Schmidt's residence; the dinner featuring the garrulous ex, rude Roberta, and airhead son Randall is a hoot. As Randall the handsome but ill fated Dermot Mulroney (he once seemed destined to become a matinee idol) comes supplied with a balding pate, a ridiculous set of whiskers, a long ponytail, and a job selling waterbeds - a pretty heavy load for an actor who once squired Julia Roberts. 'About Schmidt' quickly descends into mild slapstick with Schmidt's injury in the waterbed and doped-out behavior on Percodan. His speech at the wedding dinner teases us with expectations of a hostile outburst, but he ends by saying only the most conventional things.

This movie will get more attention than Pumpkin or The Good Girl because of Jack Nicolson's presence: Solandz lite will inch closer to mainstream. And audiences will get a few big laughs -- Jack can create heavy irony with just a raised eyebrow -- but they will not get many. This is the saddest movie of the year, and the sadness isn't just from views of joyless marriage, helpless retirement, and death, but from a steady satiric vision of Middle America that is restrained yet deeply cruel. Alexader Payne has delivered a heavy wallop to the rebel in us. He himself, it is said, has moved away from Omaha and gone to live in Hollywood.

December 22, 2002

*My original review of Pumpkin is here.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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