Schmidt happens

Nicholson rages against middle America in About Schmidt

You can't say that Jack Nicholson disappears into his role in About Schmidt. Nicholson has such an imposing presence, so well known for playing America's infernal id, that he can't "disappear" into anything.

But insurance executive Warren Schmidt marks an intriguing change of pace for the veteran movie star. Here he doesn't just play his age but flaunts it with close-ups of his ear hair and veiny ankles. His Schmidt is not larger but in some ways smaller than life, yet some of the actor's trademark rancor seeps out. It's like Schmidt is an ordinary man from Omaha who learns, upon being put out of the work force, that he's got an enraged Jack Nicholson inside him, trying to escape.

Director Alexander Payne gives us few clues of this in About Schmidt's early scenes, the camera regarding Nicholson's impassive, fleshy face as he watches the clock on his last day at the office, or sits through the steak house testimonials at his retirement party. Settling down to retirement with his wife (June Squibb), he seems to have few concerns beyond silently disapproving of the upcoming wedding of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to a water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney).

But after seeing an ad on late night TV, he decides on a whim to sponsor an impoverished Nigerian boy named Ngudu. The charity service recommends that U.S. donors also become pen pals, so Schmidt sits down at a legal pad, and his rage at retirement, not to mention decades of deeper frustrations, come pouring hilariously out.

Schmidt's fury gets thrown for a loop when, without warning, his wife leaves his life. At first he falls apart, letting his house become a sty while making grocery runs in his whale-sized Winnebago, the source of numerous sight gags. Eventually he pulls himself together and resolves to hit the road and revisit the major locales of his youth, before trying to stop Jeannie's wedding.

Payne, via Schmidt, regards middle America with dismay, seeing declining standards and increased corporatization. Schmidt finds that the house in which he grew up has become a Tires Plus. But while About Schmidt protests the mediocrity sweeping America, it also finds sport in it, frequently with a snide tone. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor offered comparably dark, Midwestern satires with Citizen Ruth and Election, and here they go for easy laughs, looking down their noses at plain folks who collect Hummel figurines or light matches after using the john.

The biggest butt of their elitist humor is Jeannie's fiance Randall Hertzell, whom Mulroney makes into every father's worst nightmare. Randall's family is every bit as alarming, especially his mom, Roberta (Kathy Bates), an acid-tongued aging hippie who no doubt sees herself as an "Earth Mother" but behaves more like a Venus Fly Trap.

Since we're used to Nicholson as a leering lecher, we're amused to see him so terrified by Bates. Likewise, Schmidt can't help but evoke the road movies of Nicholson's early career, like Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider (not to mention Albert Brooks' mobile-home homage to Rider, Lost in America). Whether he'll unleash a Nicholson-sized storm of invective at the wedding brings suspense to the film's final act.

The film retains the title of Louis Begley's acclaimed novel, which Payne and Taylor have blended with their own ideas until the source is unrecognizable. Just as Warren Schmidt feels he's wasted his life, so does About Schmidt waste its potential to be the literate, cinematic equivalent to, say, one of John Updike's "Rabbit" novels. It's a shame that the film doesn't try harder to define the state of the union, but About Schmidt definitely has great fun at its expense.