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ABOUT SCHMIDT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates
Director:  Alexander Payne
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  Deleted Scenes, Trailers
Length:  124 Minutes
Release Date:  June 3, 2003

"The most you can hope for is to try and make a difference..."

Film ***1/2

Jack Nicholson is a movie star and an American icon...but first and foremost, he is an actor.  It's easy for we fans to take him for granted, having grown accustomed to his wily grin and mischievous eyes, and the characters he tends to play with gusto and energy.  He's always great, but best of all, he's always Jack.

And yet despite his overt charisma, he still has an uncanny ability of being able to disappear into a character when he wants to.  Sometimes, the roles call for the Jack we know and love.  Other times, they call for something more.

It's amazing to me as a long time admirer to find a part Jack plays that's completely surprising.  About Schmidt is many things...but one thing it isn't is the same old Jack.  Here, the veteran actor finds a character that requires him to abandon everything that...well, makes Jack Jack.  Even in his senior years, he's always exhibits a sly charm and energy.  In this movie, perhaps for the first time, he really comes across as old and tired.

We first meet Warren Schmidt as it seems the best of his life is behind him...and feel it wasn't all that great.  He stares at the clock in his office without expression as it clicks away the final seconds of his employment as an insurance man.  After a bit of an overblown tributary dinner and a good night's sleep, he wakes up to find the rest of his life waiting for him.  A journey of self discovery is about to take place for Schmidt.  At 66, it might seem a bit late...but better late than never.

With his long time career over, he's kind of forced to take stock of his existence, which he probably never defined outside of his position.  His marriage of 42 years has evolved into something reliable and dispassionate.  His daughter Jeannie (Davis) is preparing for a wedding to a waterbed salesman with limited prospects named Randall (Mulroney).  He doesn't seem to communicate well...in fact, his sole outlet becomes writing to an African child he sponsors through one of those television charities.  The question is never asked if the child can read, write, or even understand English, but the letters become something of a one-sided therapy session for Schmidt.

He may have been lined up for a simple existence of, as they say in sports, playing out the string.  But an unexpected event causes Schmidt for the first time to really point his eyes inward.  He sets off in his new RV on what might have been the basic plot of a simple road picture, but with a purpose greater than the events that occur along the way.  And the purpose is not what he thinks it is on the surface, which is to stop his daughter from marrying what he perceives to be a washout.  No, it's about learning to redefine himself in the years where the tide of his life will be ebbing away.

Some of his encounters include a younger couple, also traveling by RV, which has a strange and sobering conclusion, the site of his boyhood home which is now a tire store, his old college, and eventually, Randall's home, where his twice divorced mother Roberta (Bates) is...shall we say, a bit too much for him to handle!

This movie is the rare kind that manages to successfully walk the line between humor and poignancy by not being afraid of either.  The comedy isn't the laugh-out-loud or fall-down kind, by any means, but the kind that's real and based on the painful things that we sometimes just have to smile about.  But on the other hand, it never shirks from the truth of the drama, which suggests that there may be nothing quite as sad as coming to the end of your journey only to find a complete stranger looking back at you from the mirror.

The script, co-written by director Alexander Payne, is mostly right on.  The writing of letters to the African child is basically just a device for voiceover inner monologues for Schmidt, but its contrivance comes to a nice conclusion.  But the real attraction is the performances, featuring Oscar nominated work by both the always-wonderful Kathy Bates and, of course, the inimitable Jack Nicholson in yet another career defining performance.  He delves into the soul of this lost man with courage and integrity...he's not afraid of loss of dignity or in forgoing anything that might have provided him with a comfort level as an actor.  Schmidt is a completely different creation for him...you never look at Jack in this movie and picture someone who would tell a waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees.

In the end, we all face the same big abyss, and we all stare into it with the big question:  what does it all mean?  The beauty of About Schmidt is that it suggests that we may never know what it means, but walk away feeling it means something.

Video ***1/2

New Line never fails to deliver quality with their DVD issues, and About Schmidt supports their reputation nicely.  There are a lot of subtle details in many of the images, especially in the set designs, from Schmidt's office to the interior of the RV, to the groom's home.  Colors are rendered beautifully and with integrity, and images are sharp and well defined throughout.  The only minor flaw was a bit of shimmer in one brief dark sequence...not distracting; merely noticeable.  High marks overall.

Audio ***

New Line's commitment to quality shows in the inclusion of a DTS soundtrack for this movie, even though by nature it's not the kind of audio that will make too many demands.  The good news is that both it and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are full, clear, and deliver the all-important dialogue without a hitch.  A bit of extracurricular activity comes from a scene with a storm and some of the business on the road.  All in all, a pleasant and supportive listen for the movie watching experience.

Features **

I've kind of come to regard deleted scenes as kind of a dubious features...some fans like 'em a lot, but usually, there's a good reason why some things were left on the cutting room floor.  This disc is generous with nine of them, but nothing that was sorely missed.  Rounding out are a trailer for this film and a pair of other Columbia Tri Star releases.

Summary:

About Schmidt is an intelligent and honest drama-comedy that stares into the void and comes back not with a tidy ending, but with a well-won ray of hope for us to nurture.  As has been said many times before, and no doubt will again, this one of Jack Nicholson's shining moments, and a true must-see.