Writer-director Alexander (“Election”) Payne may have had Thoreau on his mind as he went about the business of concocting Warren Schmidt. Like the mass of men, the character certainly leads a life of quiet desperation. Many a viewer, on the other hand, are likely to be left wishing the existence in question had been even quieter. Or more desperate. Something. Anything to make Payne’s two-hour plus rumination on it less a squandering of time and talent.
Jack Nicholson’s, for example. He’s neck and neck with Daniel Day-Lewis for actor of the year by most accounts and yet the performance the “Schmidt” star gives is far from as good as it gets. Critics have hailed it as the screen legend’s best since “Cuckoo’s Nest” but they’re the ones who need shrinks if you ask me.
Nicholson plays a sixty something shlub who’s just retired from a career as an actuary with a generic midwestern insurance firm. He’s the kind of character these same critics are fond of calling an “Everyman.” The picture’s opening shot sets the tone for the 120 minutes which follow: Schmidt sits alone in his office, his life’s work packed away, his hair combed over, his out basket empty and the phone on his desk unplugged, its cord curled meticulously by its side.
The scene has Meaningful Cinema written all over it in the way a great many in Payne’s latest do. The thing is it’s all a tad over the top. A touch too studied. Think about it. Who unplugs their telephone in the process of preparing an office for its next occupant? What would be the point?
The point is a forced, Creative Writing 101 sort of symbolism. Schmidt, you see, is a man who’s become disconnected both from the people around him and from himself. “What did it all mean?” he seems to tabulate behind glazed eyes, “How did I get here?”
Nothing wrong with those questions. The unexamined life isn’t worth living. Much less turning into a major motion picture. No, the problem is with the filmmaker’s answers. Payne launches his hero on a by the numbers “journey of self discovery.” At the wheel of a (has he not seen “Lost In America?”) Winnebago, Schmidt makes his way cross country with the intention of talking his daughter out of marrying a waterbed salesman before it’s too late. Along the way, he has a series of regulation movie misadventures notable mostly for their strained humor and threadbare metaphors.
The rambling retiree stops by his alma mater and pays a visit to his old frat house. Nothing actually happens. Apparently the audience is expected to find it entertaining simply to witness the old fart juxtaposed with his twenty something counterparts. He drives to the site of his childhood home. Surprise! A business stands in its place. That doesn’t stop Schmidt from popping in anyway and blithering to the sales clerk about how his bedroom used to be here and the family’s kitchen was over there. Exsqueeze me? That’s not poignant. That’s pathological. And fake.
Cut to the wedding day. The source of the script’s comedy? Let me count the clichés: Schmidt’s future son in-law (Dermot Mulroney) sports a mullet. Just like David Spade’s in Joe Dirt. Schmidt’s in- laws (Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman) are aging hippies. Just like the in-laws on “Dharma and Greg.” The post-nuptial shindig is straight out of The Wedding Singer. Drunken goofball best man, comical yokels, etc.
Did I mention that, on the way to the ceremony, Nicholson pulls to the side of the highway for no apparent reason and gazes meaningfully at a desolate intersection? Get it? He’s contemplating what path to take at this, yup, crossroad in his life. Did I see the same movie as everybody else?
Let’s be honest: If Jack Nicholson wasn’t well into his sixties, he wouldn’t be courting Pepsi Generation cineastes by working with one hit wunderkinds like Payne and, if Payne’s film hadn’t attracted the attention of Nicholson, it wouldn’t be attracting the kind of acclaim it’s been getting. The truth is “About Schmidt” offers only the sporadic laugh, the less frequent original cultural insight and, at best, a craftsmanlike performance from its aging headliner. The truth is there are long stretches in the picture that are unequivocally dull. Reading its reviews, you’d have every reason to conclude there’s much, much more to the movie. The truth, however, is that when it comes to “About Schmidt,” that’s about it.