Years of bad nightclub impressions, all washed away. Seasons upon seasons of eyebrow-raising schtick, suddenly rendered irrelevant. With his bravura performance as the title character of the miraculous "About Schmidt," Jack Nicholson snatches his actorly reputation from the precipice of scenery-chewing self-parody, where it has rested for almost an entire generation.
Seeing Uncle Jack channel his immense abilities into playing a normal man of his own age -- and one who's married to a woman his own age, to boot -- is just the beginning of the career revitalization this jewel of a picture affords. Nicholson's Warren Schmidt is a well-respected-but-unextraordinary Omaha, Neb., insurance actuary about to pass into retirement. He's the kind of fellow whose goings are marked every day in boardrooms and legion halls across America. With but a glimpse, we know him -- and not because we remember him hatcheting down a bathroom door in "The Shining."
In the film's carefully paced opening sequences, Schmidt's retirement process is knowingly depicted as a series of ceremonial back-pattings, followed by an awkward period of adjustment to homey coexistence with a spouse (June Squibb) who has over the years become a virtual stranger to him. Post-career life, however, has far more in store for Schmidt than he (or we) anticipated. Instead of serving out his days in puttering mode, unforeseen events send him off on a cross-country journey of self-examination, seeing America from behind the wheel of a 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer. His destination: Denver, where his defiant daughter (Hope Davis) is about to be married, erasing another vestige of Schmidt's rapidly disappearing past.
In the many misadventures that follow, Schmidt usually comes out on the losing end, and it's that deviation from Nicholson's public image that makes the film work so splendidly. How rewarding it is to see him play the fool for a change, and what a relief it is to empathize with him (rather than worshipping at his Joe Cool shades), as he learns that the world beyond the office can be a world of hurt.
Credit for re-expanding Nicholson's horizons goes to director/co-writer Alexander Payne, who adapted "Schmidt" (quite liberally) from the 1996 novel by Louis Begley. I may be alone among critics in having found Payne's previous Election a tad too cruel for its own good, so I'm a pushover for the gentler tack he's taken here -- not only with his protagonist, but with supporting characters like Schmidt's oafish son-in-law-to-be (Dermot Mulroney), who are introduced as laughingstocks but grow to embody far more. The people in Schmidt's life are just like the people in ours: flawed, frequently ridiculous, but possessed of their own peculiar dignity. (The most talked-about moment may belong to Kathy Bates, who literally throws herself into her role as the bombastic mother of the groom.)
Like any man his age, Schmidt is looking back on a lifetime of experiences and finding himself unable to suppress a troubling question: Was that all there was? The greatest achievement of the movie is to prove without pandering that what looks like a little may have been a whole lot indeed. And that there's always more to Jack than meets the eye.