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On Dec. 13, 2002, New Line unveiled Alexander Payne’s drama About Schmidt in limited release. The film went on to earn two nominations at the 75th Academy Awards, for Jack Nicholson (best actor) and Kathy Bates (best supporting actress). The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
The hints of satiric brilliance director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor exhibited in Election and, before that, Citizen Ruth, have ripened into the blisteringly funny and equally moving About Schmidt.
While the film, an acutely observed tragicomedy navigating the uncharted boundaries of human behavior, is quite remarkable on its own considerable merits, it’s a commanding Jack Nicholson lead performance that puts it into a sublime league of its own.
Whether that’s enough to put visions of Palmes d’Or dancing in the heads of this year’s Cannes jury remains to be seen, but Nicholson’s going to prove to be a tough act to follow.
No matter what happens Sunday, Schmidt is destined to be a year-end awards contender and easily Payne’s strongest box office performer to date.
From the moment we first lay eyes on him, Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt is clearly a beaten-down man.
After spending most of his life as an actuary at Omaha’s Woodmen of the World Insurance Co., he is minutes away from his retirement. Staring numbly up at the office clock, he regards the few remaining seconds of his last working day with all the enthusiasm of a death row prisoner.
The prospect of his remaining golden years provides little in the way of solace. Waiting for him back home is his wife of 42 years, Helen (June Squibb), who has successfully trained him to pee sitting down so there’ll never be any question of leaving the toilet seat up. A new 35-foot motor home waits to whisk them away to destinations unknown as well as Denver, where their only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), is about to marry the underachieving Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a waterbed sales dude with a thinning mullet.
Desperate to find a shred of purpose in his life, Schmidt absentmindedly flips through the vast wasteland that is late-night television when he comes across an adopt-an-orphan infomercial hosted by Angela Lansbury.
Schmidt soon finds himself writing detailed letters to Ndugu, his new 6-year-old Tanzanian foster child. And with the sudden death of his wife propelling him on a journey of self-discovery, there’s going to be no shortage of things to write about.
A synthesis of a book of the same name by Louis Begley and an early script Payne wrote called The Coward, Schmidt is filled with quiet, little surprises and Teflon-smooth mood-shifts.
It’s not unusual for a scene to start off side-splittingly funny and turn, quite unexpectedly, profoundly affecting, then back again without ever feeling manufactured or inappropriate.
But as good as things get, there simply wouldn’t be a Schmidt without Jack.
He’s never been better, or funnier, or more touching, exhibiting the kind of command of nuance that could only have arrived at this point in a career full of great performances.
He also proves to be a master of understated physical comedy, whether attempting to calm a waterbed or feeling the still-potent effects of a handful of expired Percodan left over from the groom-to-be’s mother’s (a wonderful Kathy Bates) hysterectomy.
Together, Nicholson and Payne (and Taylor) make for one Cannes dream team. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published May 22, 2002
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