All through About Schmidt, one waits for the Jack Nicholson moment. The moment when he smirks, triumphs, explodes or histrionically goes right over the top. The moment, all too familiar in his career, when his persona emerges to overwhelm the character he is playing. But this moment never comes, and that is a sign of the film's confidence and quality.
Since the mid '90s, Nicholson has chosen his roles wisely. He has explored intense drama for Sean Penn (in The Crossing Guard  and The Pledge ) and neurotic comedy for James L. Brooks (in As Good As It Gets, 1997). All these parts involved risks for Nicholson as an actor, but none were able to entirely submerge that irascible, angry, seductive screen persona.
In About Schmidt, however, Nicholson disappears into his character more deeply than he did thirty years ago as a bespectacled, repressed intellectual in The King of Marvin Gardens (1973). Warren Schmidt is an ordinary guy. His wife, Helen (Jane Squibb), has become a slightly annoying stranger to him after so many years together. His daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), seethes with unspoken resentments left over from childhood.
Shortly after Warren retires - a bleak tableau of long-term employment and its consequences - his life is unexpectedly turned upside down. He decides to take a journey in a Winnebago Adventurer to see Jeannie, who is about to marry the unappetising Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Warren is drawn in, rather reluctantly, to the whirl of social activity organised by Randall's gregarious mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates).
About Schmidt tends to make many viewers extremely uneasy, because it is hard to tell what attitude it takes towards the people and places it presents. Is the movie one big, snobbish laugh at the American working class, with its kitsch domestic designs, bad haircuts and embarrassing manners? Is Warren's quest to find himself just an empty, media-fed cliché? Does this slice of life merely end up as miserably as it started?
The ace up the sleeve of director and co-writer Alexander Payne (Election, 1999) is a voice-over narration - a series of letters addressed to a child in Tanzania named Ndugu whom Warren is sponsoring. In these missives, Warren pours out every detail of frustration and self-doubt in his little life that he is capable of articulating. The irony hanging over these texts is heavy: even if he could read English, how could Ndugu possibly comprehend this inappropriately intimate confession?
When About Schmidt returns to the nagging mystery of this permanently unseen character in its final scene, it is left to the viewer to decide whether the film's streak of black comedy has reached its zenith or, on the contrary, a faith in human nature is at last being affirmed - and, if so, whether or not that affirmation is convincing.
Personally, I find it a very moving film. Payne, it seems to me, is not denouncing the lack of emotional depth or spirituality in his characters. He misses no opportunity for wry humour (especially where Randall is concerned), but he explores the possibilities and constraints in these everyday lives with understanding and compassion.
About Schmidt uses a charmingly meandering, picaresque, episodic structure reminiscent of the great American movies of the early '70s. Payne injects a few facile moments of physical burlesque (such as when Roberta over-medicates Warren for his walk up the church aisle) but, when it really counts, he avoids opportunities for crowd-pleasing humour. The scene of Warren's wedding speech is, in this regard, magnificently underplayed.
I can think of few American films of the past two decades, beyond As Good As It Gets and Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982), which play so skilfully on the perpetual discomfort of viewers - a discomfort which arises, above all, from our uncertainty about what to make of the central character.
Is Warren a hero, a loser, a schmuck, an idiot or a battler? Nicholson's brilliant performance allows us to entertain all these possibilities in turn. And the same richness extends to others in the cast, particularly Bates and Davis.
© Adrian Martin February 2003