Director: Alexander Payne
Writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s third collaboration starts out intriguingly as 66 year old Woodmen Insurance actuary Warren Schmidt numbly stares at the wall clock ticking away the last seconds before his retirement. What’s startling about this weary and tired looking man with a comb-over is that he’s played by eternal smartass 18 year old Jack Nicholson, who we’re not used to see as weak and resigned. Unfortunately, once you get used to Nicholson not falling back on his usual mannerisms, there is nothing but boredom to be gained from the film. “About Schmidt” purposely revels in blandness, dullness and the ordinary… But why would one want to watch a film that ends up being bland, dull and ordinary itself?
There’s not much plot to speak of. Schmidt adjusts poorly to retirement and find his wife irritating, and he can’t stand that his daughter is about to marry a dumb-looking waterbed salesman from Denver. Somehow that leads him to going on a Winnebago road trip through Middle America- and down Memory lane. This is all drenched in voice-over which, while it amusingly takes the form of letters from Schmidt to an African boy he’s sponsoring (“Dear Ndugu…”), is still an uninspired crutch for lazy writers trying (unsuccessfully) to bring depth to the film. Even worse is how increasingly contemptuous “About Schmidt” grows. Bathroom humor and bad slapstick having fallen utterly flat, Payne and Taylor try to entertain by mocking easy targets. “Tee hee, ain’t people in the Middle West and the South dorks?” seems to be their motto. Everywhere Schmidt goes through on his trip is desperately tacky and everyone he meets is a one-dimensional caricature, most embarrassingly the loud-mouthed, sex-starved groom’s mother played by Kathy Bates.
Where’s the empathy that balanced the satire in Payne and Taylor’s Election? In that movie, we laughed at Tracy Flick and at the people around her, but first and foremost they were fully developed, interesting characters that the filmmakers clearly cared about, and so did we. In “About Schmidt” we’re just expected to make fun of all these folks because they talk, dress or behave differently without ever getting to know them. Even Schmidt (and by extension, Nicholson’s performance) is rather one-note and unlikable. He just sits or stands there looking bummed out and silently judging everyone around him, yet we’re supposed to feel “What a sad, sad man.” Personally, all I felt was aching disinterest. “About Schmidt” might be the year’s most overrated picture.