Directed by Alexander Payne, starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Howard Hesseman, Len Cariou and June Squibb.
For many actors, when the looks fade the scripts disappear too. Jack Nicholson was never what you would call classically good looking so this would never have been a concern for him. But then again, Nicholson is a class actor, so he wouldn’t have fretted too much anyway as the hair went and the wrinkles came.
What he might have worried about, though, is the fact that older actors rarely get good roles. Too often the parts are mere supporting roles, bit parts with only sporadic opportunities to show you can still do it. Warren Schmidt is not one of those roles. A fully-rounded and scarily credible character, Schmidt is the centrepiece of a film of reflection in which the realm of regret is never far away.
The action begins with the retirement of the eponymous character. After 40 years of working as an actuary, Schmidt suddenly has lots of time to fill. With all this time comes the realisation that he has lead something of a lifeless life, where work and conformity have come at the expense of self-knowledge and meaning. When a family bereavement follows, Schmidt decides to do the things he should have done in a younger man's clothes, and sets off on a mission to discover a life to be lived. ‘About Schmidt’ is not as good as American critics would lead us to believe. It’s often too self-consciously quirky to be truly moving, and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s script meanders all over the place in the middle section. At times it’s like ‘Road Trip’ for geriatrics. In fact, it’s worth noting that if the big names weren’t here we probably wouldn’t get over-excited because there are definitely better scripts out there. But the fact is there are some big names attached to this and we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that this is a vehicle for the biggest one of them all. No, not Dermot Mulroney.
Nicholson - sporting a comb-over here which screams against incipient old age - is experiencing something of a rebirth of late after Sean Penn’s ‘The Pledge’ (2001) gave him a sterner workout than simply having to raise those eyebrows and flash that famous grin. That’s not to say the manic stare has been buried completely. Nicholson’s Schmidt still occasionally betrays the actor’s famed mannerisms, but here it’s all done in the name of necessity.
Ultimately, it’s in scenes where Schmidt’s grief and emotional shock are evinced that Jack shows he’s worthy of the plaudits which so freely come his way. Some, in particular, are riveting, as he abandons the devilish charm in favour of a touching vulnerability - simple and understated, and with an admirable disregard for vanity.
Those around him are steady too. The ever-reliable Kathy Bates shines as his over-sexed prospective in-law; Dermot Mulroney is suitably bumbling as the fiancé who will never be good enough, and Hope Davis is entirely convincing as the daughter struggling to pursue her own path while her Dad maps out an alternative.
Nicholson has evoked a range of feelings in moviegoers over the past 40 years. Now add pathos to that list. And strange as it may sound, there is almost something of a guilty pleasure in seeing him humbled, even if it is only on screen. Warren Schmidt is the man to bring Jack to his knees. For that alone, we should all pay a visit to the cinema.