Bloody hell – Jack Nicholson can act. I had no idea! If you want to see him taking a stab at contained, meaningful characterisation in a tragic tale of wasted life and jaunty music, then About Schmidt is for you.
It was recommended by my boy, Steve, brother to Jacketta and a fine lad for insights into the miseries of middle age. Which, I suspect, is why he recommended this to his old Pops. Nicholson plays a retiree – Warren Schmidt – who has spent his life aspiring to nothing, achieving nothing, and ultimately retiring to the nothingness of empty days. An actuary. Say no more. Well, except then his wife dies.
God, it’s miserable.
There is a lovely conceit that holds the film’s structure together: Schmidt writes to Ndugu, an African lad whom he sponsors on a whim. The boy is five, but gets the full blast of Schmidt’s disappointment at the world. Well, with himself, really. Take the warning, kids. Don’t lead a life you’ll look back on with…emptiness. Then imagine the nuns at the school deciding whether to read out the screeds of impenetrable trivia that Schmidt lets flow in his goalless road trip through America’s blandness… Is that a tale you want to tell?
So – Schmidt goes a-wandrin’. Mostly to bother his daughter and stop her marrying a feckless div who sells water-beds and pyramid schemes. In this he fails, much like everything else in his life. Possibly at his retirement, perhaps at the heartless reaction from his successor when he pops back for some affirmation, certainly as he leans over the corpse of his wife (the brilliant, dangerously busy-at-life’s-minutiae June Squibb) – face down in the kitchen, dust-busting her life away – Schmidt knows he has failed at life. The tragedy is writ large throughout and – in a clumsy encounter in a caravan park – eats him up. So he does what the unlived do and runs away.
Which got me down a bit. And the rest of the home. Old Clive and Mad Maud were both huffing and puffing their way through the serialised desperation with an eye to sugary stimulants. But I made them stick with it, for my boy, and because I had the remote between my thighs.
But – back to Nicholson – he can act. Okay, so he is instantly out-classed by Kathy Bates and her hot-tub, and you get the feeling every scene started with the director bitch-slapping him with a placard saying “less, dammit!”, but it’s worth it. His balance of comedy and character isn’t outweighed by the showman jazz-handing his way through any subtleties.
Perhaps the best test of this is the final moments of the film. I’ll not spoil them, but they are a clever climax. In a moment, loss, sadness, hope and worth come charging through Schmidt’s face and he reacts. And you believe the reaction because you are watching Schmidt and have forgotten Nicholson. And wish his life is not an allegory for your own.
Go get this from Amazon Prime or Netflix if you are in a properly good mood and six months clear of any clinical issues. Or you think Nicholson can’t top the Joker.