Nicholson excels in an excellent film.
Jack Nicholson, in addition to being one of the finest actors of his generation, is also a smoove-pimpin'-mack-daddy wit' da ladies, as witnessed by his current young lady friend Lara Flynn Boyle. It seems odd, then, seeing him as the lead in About Schmidt playing an actuary for a life insurance firm; a tired, grumpy old man married to an equally tired old lady, his wife Helen (June Squibb).
Warren Schmidt watches the last few seconds of his working life tick away before heading to a dismal retirement do. A speech from his friend, Ray (Len Cariou) sets him wondering exactly what his life has amounted to thus far. The answers this returns are disappointing. He made it as far up the company ziggurat as Assistant Vice-President, which wasn't quite his dream of starting his own company and getting it into the Fortune 500. He has begun to find his wife's habits infuriating. His only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis) is about to marry a bemulleted buffoon of a water bed salesman, Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney). He feels his life has pretty much amounted to nothing. Angst, thy name is Walter Schmidt.
As he settles into a new routine for his life, consisting largely of watching television and growing more frustrated, he is one day affected enough by a third-world child sponsoring programme advert to part with his cash in an attempt to feel more useful. It is revealed he will be sponsoring a boy named Ndugu, and is encouraged to send some personal details about himself along with the check. It is through these letters to Ndugu that Schmidt can vent his frustrations about the world in general and himself in particular, providing him with an outlet for his feelings which seems to bring a bit of stability to his life. Perhaps a cheap way of expressing Walter's inner monologue, but it's undeniably effective. The opening act may drag for some, however I found myself enjoying the build up of tension in Walter, before fate throws him down a different road.
This stability shattered after the sudden death of his wife, after which he realises how much he had loved her. However, after a few weeks of perfectly understandable moping, he discovers that Helen had at some time in the distant past had an affair with Walter's best friend, Ray (Len Cariou). Faced with this betrayal he decides the best course of action is to take a road trip in his deluxe Winnebago, the ultimate goal being Denver, home to Jeannie and the ridiculously mustachioed Randall, where the wedding will be taking place.
There's no shortage of these road trip movies around, ranging from the sublime (such as Easy Rider) to the unspeakably revolting (non-talent Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads, one of the few things the identically named defunct British soap opera can claim to be better than). In films of this nature, the characters have to carry the film to greatness, as the plot is unlikely to. Nicholson delivers in spades, turning in what may be a career best performance, certainly his most subtle. Through the few extra characters he meets throughout this portion of the film, but primarily through the letters to Ndugu, Walter comes to terms to some extent with the direction the remainder of his life will take him and his feelings towards his deceased wife and Ray's dalliance. It's a masterful performance of an exceptionally well-written character study from Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne, heavily adapting Louis Begley's original novel to the extent of having little to do with the book at all.
After a long hard think on the roof of his Winnebago in the wilderness, Walter comes to some small reconciliation with his feelings, deciding to stop his daughter from making the same mistakes he has, and breaking up the marriage to Randall and the dysfunctional Hertzel family. And what a family they are. The matriarch of this clan, Roberta (Kathy Bates) is probably best described as a force of nature, being by far the dominant personality in the family, which includes the excellent Howard Hesseman as Roberta's ex-husband Larry, prone to rambling soliloquies in place of a short toast. It's a testament to Bates' ability as an actress that in the scenes between Nicholson and herself she more than holds her own, no small feat given an on-form Nicholson could act almost anyone else off the screen.
Jeannie does not take well to this interference, and promises to go ahead with the wedding. And indeed she does, prompting another excellent performance during his speech to the assembled multitude. We see him so very nearly breaking and telling the assorted misfits of the Hertzels exactly what he thinks of them, but cannot bring himself to further distance himself from his daughter and ruin her happiness, even though he suspects it cannot last.
He returns home broken, defeated. The voice over of his next letter to Ndugu is heartbreaking, and this is coming from a man who only has one emotion, that of mild boredom. The crashing low is followed by the films emotional high as Walter returns to find a letter and picture from Ndugu awaiting him. Confirmation the difference a trivial amount of money is making to this child's life provides Walter with the knowledge that he has made a difference, and continues to do so. The final shot of Walter's tear-stained as he gives us the first real evidence of any joy in his life at all is an iconic one which stays with you long after the credits roll.
If we were being critical, there's nothing particularly new in this film, but rarely has it been so well done. Even with strong performances from the rest of the cast, the spotlight remains firmly on Nicholson throughout as he delivers a masterclass. The film moves subtly between genuinely funny moments to tender and heartrending ones with a deftness which puts almost everything else to shame, and is hugely enjoyable throughout, as well as being deeply personal for all who see it. I'm sure at some dark hour in our lives we've run through the same questions Walter has and found our own set of answers, which makes it all the more cathartic when Walter finds his. It's probably the only genuinely emotive movie experience I've been privileged to view since Amelie.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd have to award this 5/5 TippyMarks.
Kathy Bates (Roberta Hertzel)
Hope Davis (Jeannie Schmidt )
Dermot Mulroney (Randall Hertzel )
June Squibb (Helen Schmidt )
Howard Hesseman (Larry Hertzel)
Len Cariou (Ray Nichols)