|It's amazing how every once in a while a completely Niche Market will be catered to in a Major Hollywood motion picture, and even less often it will be a hit. Somehow director Alexander Payne has managed to get both to happen and attract Oscar's interests as well! His screenplay (with Jim Taylor) adaptation of Louis Begley's novel of the same name makes for one of the most frightening films ever made, but only for one small market out there... aging suburban male sycophants with growing daughters, and a complete misunderstanding of the world around them. It's a specialized group to be sure, but it's nice to be catered to every once in a while... not every movie needs to be Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. What does disturb me about this tale is that many moviegoers out there will see this as a comedy. Make no mistake, the writers have carefully chosen the scariest things that can happen to a person and have put them into one movie that is in 125 minutes more frightening a Jack Nicholson vehicle than The Shining, Mars Attacks!, and Wolf all put together. I should know, I am an aging suburban male sycophant with a growing daughter!
About Schmidt is an appropriate title to be sure, as this movie really is all about Warren R. Schmidt, a retired insurance adjuster whose career doesn't amount to a "gosh damn thing" (I watched this on a plane, can you tell?)! His real life is getting used to the next chapter in his life, and adjusting, uncomfortably to the next chapter in his daughter's life... unfortunately, she's marrying a complete loser that Warren doesn't approve of. And who would? It's Dermot Mulroney with a bad mullet, a creepy job and a pyramid scheme that "isn't really a pyramid scheme!" that he brings up at inappropriate times. His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) loves the guy, and can't see any flaws in him. But Schmidt could, and so could I! As if this wasn't creepy enough as it is, certain revelations in Schmidt's life, add more weight to his relationship with his daughter than to any other part of his life, and her life, and her mediocre choices trap Schmidt in a web from which escape is nigh impossible!
Schmidt maintains his sanity (barely) through correspondence with Ndugu, a sponsored child in the vein of those Sally Struthers commercials. It's Schmidt's letters to Ndugu that narrate the film in both a spooky and an uncomfortably humorous way. His one way (for the most part) relationship with Ndugu is both touching and detached, and is deceptively perhaps the most important aspect of the film, holding the key to Schmidt's purpose in life. It's easy to forget that Ndugu is a real human being, instead of simply the object of Schmidt's soliloquy! Ndugu is more important than he seems.
The rest of the cast can hardly be considered anything less than vital. Yeah it's About Schmidt but the supporting cast is necessary to, well, support what Schmidt is about. June Squibb plays Helen, Warren's wife and Jeannie's mother, whom Warren barely recognizes after 40 plus years of marriage. Howard Hesseman is the father of the groom, and he is uncomfortably funny! Hey, it's great to see Dr. Johnny Fever in something again, as he really is an underrated gem... here is no exception. It's a creepy and scary environment as you enter his and Kathy Bates' home, but they both add just the right humor to keep Schmidt from running screaming from the horror! Kathy Bates almost steals the show as the mother of the groom. She's quirky and frightening (more so than she ever was in Misery) as she attempts to pull what's left of Warren Schmidt into her tangled web she deems to be actual normality. Have you ever been to a family reunion, or to meet the parents, or to a wedding and there are some creepy, eerie people you are forced to make nice with, but deep down inside you just can't because of horror unequalled even in Apocalypse Now? I have! Now imagine those same people want to drug you and use your body sexually like the worst nightmares of William Chester Minor! The mayor of Sunnydale even makes a cameo in one of the less frightening sequences!
The best part of the film was undeniably the end! It has to be one of the best and most emotional endings to a Horror film I have ever witnessed! I can't reveal what goes on, but I can say that it's beautiful, and makes the previous horrors bearable in a very unique way. Please just watch it!
I was stunned that this director was the writer of Jurassic Park III! About Schmidt is much, much scarier than JP3 was, and has more emotion and heart than the previous film... plus both prominently feature dinosaurs. Probably every critic in the world has uttered or written the phrase "Nicholson's hair was a character in and of itself!" but I won't (oh, I just did!). The man has a bad comb-over, but so does the Operations Manager here at my work. Let's not detract from the greatness of his part (no pun intended)! What Nicholson does with pure acting is wonderful. His detached annoyance and fear, his love and pain, and his sadness and hope are all captured perfectly. Life is hard, even for suburban malcontents, and being displaced suddenly in a strange and uncomfortable world is frightening even without all the other terror in this film. Nicholson handles it all as if he truly understands Schmidt... and I think he makes us understand him as well! This film displaces As Good as it Gets as Nicholson's prime example of emotional range, and replaces The Witches of Eastwick as his scariest movie!
A great big insulting hand gesture goes to US Airways for their shoddy sound system, dinners you have to pay for, lack of vegetarian alternatives and teeny rinse and spit cups of diet Coke. Even all that couldn't keep About Schmidt from earning Four Stars! Truly this is among the best horror movies of the new millennium and will long be considered a Nicholson Classic up there with Five Easy Pieces! Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go update my will, put a down-payment on my Winnebago, admonish my daughter for her future choices in mates, adopt a starving child in a third world country and look for another job that is indeed worth a gosh damned thing! Anyone hiring Film Critics?