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Horror films drive viewers to heights of emotion by easing tense-but-quiet violins into the background, by dimming the lights, and by isolating characters for long periods of time. Then they deliver the wallop: the knife to the noggin, the corpse in the closet, the witch in the woods.
Comedies get audiences to laugh by priming them for something funny to happen. You get to know the goofy characters and their traits so that when they do something particularly crass, embarrassing, or outrageous, you can laugh along with them. Even if the particular joke or stunt isn't telegraphed, you're still set up to expect something funny to happen.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about About Schmidt is that it continually seems to set up some familiar dramatic scene, some caper, some revelation or bombshell, but almost never delivers. Though rife with both humor and drama, the keel on the film stays even. Several times during the movie, the Mrs. and I tried to predict what was about to happen. "He's going to steal his car." "He's about to tell off all those people." "She's going to seduce him." Each time, we were wrong. No bombshells.
Well, there were some surprises, just not anywhere we expected them. And they were the quiet kind, not flashy, melodramatic kicks, but regular life events or revelations that had just enough impact to change the course of the main character, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson). Paradoxically, there is a surprise ending of sorts, but it's so subtle, that you may miss it. The twist is that what you'd expect to happen under normal conditions really does happen. The twist is that there is no twist. My expectations as a viewer were foiled because, since this is a movie with Jack Nicholson, I expected something a lot wilder to happen.
The only thing that keeps About Schmidt from being a celebration of normality is that normality isn't much into celebrations. Though a few characters are "hyper-normal," verging on satire of WASP culture, the scenario mainly stays in recognizable territory. Warren Schmidt has turned 66 and is retiring from the insurance game. A depressingly staid dinner, albeit well-intentioned, is held in his honor; and a friend of his, getting drunk, delivers a toast which almost becomes an embarrassingly maudlin rant, as you might find in an uproarious comedy, but doesn't.
Schmidt settles into his boring retired life, and, while watching teevee, is moved to sponsor an African orphan with $22 per month. When his packet arrives from the foundation, he is inspired to write a long, personal letter to Ndugu in Tanzania. His occasional letters to Ndugu reveal his internal monologue in contrast to his external surroundings. Inside, his colorless, passionless life has left him bitter and sad. Externally, he must deal with a funeral and the sub-optimal marriage of his daughter.
Schmidt takes to his RV, trekking from Omaha to Denver to stop the wedding, and along the way, he reveals a lot about himself through small, awkward encounters. His in-laws-to-be turn out to be every bit as dysfunctional as his own family was.
Through its portrayals of typical middle-American events and values, About Schmidt tells a tale of quiet desperation and nihilism. It doesn't harp on satire, and, in case you were worried about Nicholson going soft, it is far too cynical to be precious. In the end, however, it is Schmidt's inexplicable good deed done halfway around the world that offers the only real hint of salvation for the character. And as the sole ray of light in a life otherwise obscured with miserliness and withholding, it saves him.
I have to say that Jack Nicholson is a very good actor. Unlike Ed Norton, John Cusack, Bruce Willis, and about two dozen other actors I could name, Nicholson never lets his own personality as a celebrity interfere with his portrayal of his character. You never see him peek around the dullard Schmidt to say, "Hey, look, it's really me, the notorious Jack Nicholson." That's quite a feat considering how low-key Schmidt is. Kathy Bates also turns in a well-textured performance.
The Mrs., as I've mentioned, was rolling on the floor laughing at some scenes. I didn't find it ROTFL-funny, but I was charmed by it in general. I'd recommend it.
©2003 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.