Those expecting another classic comedy performance from Jack Nicholson in the same fashion as As Good As It Gets will be sorely disappointed with About Schmidt, a film that if anything is a platform for Nicholson to withdraw into as opposed to devilishly project from.
Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a retired insurance worker who despite earning the respect of many of his workers, seems to have acquired not a single trace of wisdom on his journey to retirement. Schmidt isnít comfortable with his family life, nor with the prospect of having infinite time on his hands, so he seeks out spiritual enlightenment on the road, using the Winnebago his wife forced him to buy, not as a life changing adventure, but as a last resort.
About Schmidt is not a comedy, itís a hard-felt drama that is often funny because itís easy to imagine yourself turning out like Schmidt. He acquired the good job, family, pension and all of the usual American Dream security factors but his life is still vacuous. He has everything and yet nothing. The film manipulatively exploits Schmidt as a narrator by having him write letters explaining his life to his foster African child Ndugu. The two have never met, and their situations are poles apart, and yet both are in need of help. Schmidt writes the letters as if cathartically exorcising his own inner-demons, even if both him and the audience are unsure that Ndugu even reads or understands Schmidtís plight.
The most interesting thing that features in About Schmidt is Nicholson, and the pre-conceived notions that his celebrity persona brings to the part. Youíd be forgiven for expecting Nicholson to explode into an insane rage throughout most of the film, and yet director Alexander Payne, who did a sterling job with Election, exerts a fine stamp of control on the actor, as if he encourages Nicholson to say more by doing less.
At times, About Schmidt suffers from pacing issues, particularly in the bridge between the filmís second and third act, but on the whole the film doesnít suffer by the odd reduction in dramatic flow. Performances are good in support of Nicholson, in particular Kathy Bates, who shows more of herself than usual, and Hope Davis, who provides a decent neurotic performance as Schmidtís uncaring daughter.
About Schmidt is certainly more a character study as opposed to a road movie or comedy-drama. Itís a film that hinges completely on the belief that Nicholson can inhabit Schmidt, and thankfully he pulls it off in true Jack fashion. Whilst undeserving of an Oscar, Nicholson effortlessly carries the film on his shoulders and renders it interesting enough to make us care about Warren Schmidt, even if the characters in his life ceased worrying years ago. Itís a bittersweet study of life winding down, and is a welcome antidote from the glitz of Chicago, the teen gatherings at 8 Mile and the lengthy epics Gangs Of New York and The Two Towers.