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"ABOUT SCHMIDT"
(2002) (Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Following several life changing developments, a widowed retiree tries to find meaning in his life.
PLOT:
Warren Schmidt (JACK NICHOLSON) is a 66-year-old former insurance salesman who's come to realize that retirement isn't all it's cut out to be. Now at home with his wife, Helen (JUNE SQUIBB), in Omaha, he tries to find some purpose in his life and eventually decides to financially support Ndugu Umbo, a young boy in Tanzania with whom he exchanges letters.

Then one day he comes home to find Helen dead and his life changes forever. After making all of the related arrangements, he then comes to the realization that he needs to make the best of his remaining time. It's not until he discovers that Helen and his best friend and former coworker Ray (LEN CARIOU), were more than just friends that he decides to set out across the country in the RV he and Helen had earlier purchased.

After hitting various spots and eventually forgiving Helen, he sets off for Denver where his adult daughter Jeannie (HOPE DAVIS) lives and is preparing to marry Randall Hertzel (DERMOT MULRONEY). He's a waterbed salesman and Warren thinks Jeannie can do much better than him, a point that further strains their already tenuous relationship.

Upon arriving there, he meets Randall's divorced parents, Roberta (KATHY BATES) and Larry (HOWARD HESSEMAN), and isn't overly pleased with the extended family into which his daughter is planning to marry. While still corresponding with Ndugu, Warren still tries to persuade Jeannie to change her mind. Yet, with the big day approaching, Warren must deal with the inevitable and eventually realize that his life has not been without purpose.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Since most older people's identity and/or self-image is through their current or past jobs as well as their spouse, retirement and/or the death of a husband or wife can be quite a shock to their system. Both mean the disruption of daily rhythms and routines and that, accompanied by the sense of loss and normal social interaction, can have devastating consequences on the survivor or retiree.

If both happen within a short amount of time, the result can be twice as worse or more. Yet, the resilient ones usually find a way to cope, bounce back or even find a new purpose or direction in life.

Warren Schmidt is one of those people. Having just retired from a long career at a life insurance agency, he realizes that retired life and being around his wife every day isn't exactly peaches and cream. Then one day he suddenly finds himself all alone, save for a brief visit by his estranged adult daughter and his occasional letter writing correspondence with a needy boy halfway around the world.

That's the basic setup of "About Schmidt," and it's one of the best films of the year. While that previous description might make the picture sound like a depressing affair, it's anything but that. Part of that stems from co-writer and director Alexander Payne ("Election," "Citizen Ruth") and screenwriter Jim Taylor ("Jurassic Park III, "Election") being behind the camera.

Working from an un-produced script Payne wrote years ago as well as parts of Louis Begley's novel, "About Schmidt," the filmmakers have fashioned yet another satirical look at Middle America and its denizens. This time around, the slice of life approach focuses on loss and regret, but also hope and getting a new shot at life.

While not exactly a dire wake-up call to viewers, the film does offer various nuggets of wisdom about how one should live life. It does so in a disarming way that's never preachy or overbearing, and Payne expertly balances and often quickly switches between the film's various sad, poignant and rather funny moments, resulting in a full-bodied and pleasing experience.

What really makes the film work so well, however, is the presence of and performance by Jack Nicholson ("The Pledge," "As Good As It Gets"). Perfectly embodying the downtrodden widower whose daily routine is now shot, the actor uses most every thespian weapon in his arsenal. Whether it's that seemingly blank but loaded facial expression, the way he carries his body or that unmistakable and unforgettable voice, Nicholson is constantly mesmerizing to watch.

It's that voice, when delivering Payne and Taylor's superb dialogue, that really makes the picture fly. During the film, we occasionally "hear" the protagonist writing the young Tanzanian boy he's sponsoring. Whether it's Nicholson simply beginning each letter with "Dear Ndugu" or basically, but unknowingly, using the letters as a sort of therapy, those moments are nothing short of a delight to hear and insure that the actor will earn yet another Best Actor nomination.

Of course, he doesn't perform in a void and the plot has him interacting with various characters during his journey including his estranged daughter, future son-in-law and that man's family. While Hope Davis ("Hearts in Atlantis," "Mumford"), Dermot Mulroney ("Lovely & Amazing," "My Best Friend's Wedding") - in a funny performance - and especially Kathy Bates ("Dragonfly," "Titanic") are all quite good, it's how Nicholson's character responds and reacts to them that makes the film so entertaining. Seeing his reaction to Bates disrobing, entering a hot tub with him and then coming on to him is priceless.

It's possible some viewers could complain that the film is too slow for their tastes. While it's true that Payne is in no hurry to rush the story along, that's one of the film's winning tactics and charming aspects, and no scene or moment overstays its welcome.

From the terrific opening sequence that tells us everything we need to know about the protagonist's state of mind and life to the brilliant ending that will bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your face, the film is a superb examination of life and should not be missed. "About Schmidt" rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed November 13, 2002 / Posted December 20, 2002


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