Well, here we are in awards ceremony season again, and - what with our release schedule lagging the usual few weeks behind that of our former colonial cousins - many of the films being tipped for glory are only now pitching up for business in our fair country. You can always spot these as the newspaper adverts have tiny print at the bottom telling Bafta and Ampas members they can get in for free - surely that counts as trying to bribe the judges?
Anyway, one of these aspirant movies is Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, for which Jack Nicholson is being tipped for his twelfth Oscar nomination. At first glance this looks like another of the string of wedding comedies currently infesting multiplexes, but it's not really an out-and-out comedy and it isn't really about a wedding.
The film opens with the last day of work for Nebraskan actuary Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), and then moves on to his grisly, wake-like retirement party. As he struggles to adjust to retired life, Schmidt slowly realises that he hasn't really amounted to much, something the sudden death of his wife and the subsequent re-evaluation of his life only confirms. Schmidt resolves to make the best possible use of the time left to him (as an actuary, he knows there's a 73% chance he'll die inside nine years), and hits the road in his mobile home, intent upon a noble quest - to stop his only child (Hope Davis) from marrying a dopey water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney)!
It's almost impossible to overstate how important Nicholson's performance is to the success of this film. He's in every scene, but beyond this the film is the story of Schmidt's growing self-knowledge and ultimate acceptance that he hasn't made the best use of his years.
Nicholson is immaculate, delivering a restrained, touching, and witty performance. Part of what makes it so striking is the almost total absence of the Nicholson-isms - the snarl, the leer, the manic eyebrow-twitching - that have become a routine part of most of his work over
the last ten or fifteen years. Occasionally he lets rip - Schmidt writes regular letters to a little Tanzanian boy he's sponsoring, which the audience hear as a voice-over, and the first in particular gives Nicholson a chance to do his thing - but the very rareness of these moments makes them all the more effective. Nicholson gets all the laughs in this film, but more often than not they arise from his deadpan reactions to the other characters he encounters on his travels. (There is one moment of terrific physical comedy, though, as Schmidt grapples futilely with the water-bed his new in-laws have put him in.)
The restraint and minimalism of Nicholson's performance is matched by that of Alexander Payne's direction. He's a director of enormous precision, and you never doubt that a great deal of thought has gone into every aspect of this film. And it's a remarkable film in many
ways, but chiefly because of its attitude to Schmidt and the other characters.
Schmidt is a failure, a bumbling and rather deluded old man who makes a mess of virtually everything he attempts to do. But while the film is unflinching in making this clear, it never seems to be holding him up to ridicule, either. It's a razor-thin tightrope between pathos and mordant black comedy that Payne navigates with tremendous skill, barely putting a foot wrong. Schmidt may be a failure, but more often than not this is simply down to a basic human decency he just can't break free of. This is not really a very sentimental film, but it's a
hugely compassionate one.
About Schmidt rambles a bit in places and is perhaps a little too long. Don't go to see it expecting a wall-to-wall comedy festival, because I did and it took me a while to figure out that that wasn't what's on offer. What you'll get is an outstanding central performance in a film of great subtlety and enormous charm. Recommended.
Coming Soon: Richard Gere tap-dances and Bruce Campbell runs amok with a shovel in an unlikely double bill. Don't fail to miss it.