- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

"About Schmidt" threw me for a loop, and the same letdown may await moviegoers familiar with the source material, a recent novel by Louis Begley.
Mr. Begley's Al Schmidt is a corporate lawyer in his early 60s who has recently retired from a Wall Street investment company and also has recently lost his wife, a beloved book editor, to cancer. At his home in the Hamptons, the widower confronts solitude he hadn't anticipated, aggravated by the pending marriage of his only daughter to a man he doesn't like.
The question of "What now, Schmidt?" was very intriguing. I don't believe we have seen Mr. Nicholson play a man of Al Schmidt's sophistication and resourcefulness in quite a while. Mr. Nicholson seemed ideal for Al Schmidt's sneakiness, humor and erotic susceptibility.
But the film is not about Mr. Begley's Al Schmidt. The outlines of the Begley character and plot remain, but the young humorist Alexander Payne, whose Omaha, Neb., origins were distinguishing features in his first two satiric comedies, "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," has elected to stay close to home.
He revamps Al Schmidt for the Midwest and renames him Warren Schmidt, an actuary at an Omaha insurance company who also suffers a sudden conjugal loss and dreads the thought of his daughter's marriage to a balding but ponytailed chucklehead in Denver who sells water beds. The groom, Randall (Dermot Mulroney), is clearly going to be dominated by his smarter spouse, Hope Davis' Charlotte, already a virtuoso at emotional blackmail in a martyred tone.
So instead of a Manhattan-Long Island axis, we have an Omaha-Denver axis that effaces the original Schmidt's superior intellectual and social attributes. Instead of the sharp and opinionated Schmidt, we discover an incorrigibly dull and bovine fellow, visualized in terms that resemble an early photograph of a prize steer in a 4-H competition.
Everything about Mr. Nicholson's impersonation is squat and stolid, and the plot robs this blocky pillar of the community of so many fond hopes that consolation is reduced to a faraway pen-pal relationship.
After vegetating in the empty Omaha house after the funeral, Schmidt gets a surge of energy and drives to Denver before the wedding in the huge Winnebago Adventurer that he envisioned as a vacation vehicle for himself and his late wife. He stops off at various scenic spots, acquiring what Mr. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor obviously consider mocking historical insights ("The Indians got a raw deal") and making one embarrassing miscalculation of a romantic nature while socializing at a trailer camp.
This Schmidt is pre-eminently a clueless, defenseless figure of fun for the writers, who fail to persuade you that it's an edifying or entertaining form of mockery. Especially with Jack Nicholson obliged to stay perversely duncey, inexpressive and laborious.
Reaching Denver, Schmidt becomes the houseguest of the groom's mom, Roberta, a hippie Earth Mother and erotic predator embodied with such irresistible zest and guile by Kathy Bates that it seems a wasted opportunity to be formulating Schmidt as a cringing, panicky wallflower. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates are the kind of performers who deserve a chance to mix it up when they're finally paired, especially if you're also being playful enough to slip in a scene in which they share a hot tub.
The amusement value of Roberta advancing while Schmidt backpedals begins to deflate when you discover that the filmmakers don't plan to advance the relationship beyond that preliminary awkwardness. Why maneuver two stellar comic actors into such a position if you lack the payoffs that make it worth their while?
Mr. Nicholson does salvage an excruciating, booby-trapped monologue at the wedding party when Schmidt is obliged to toast the happy couple. Even this set piece would play better in a comic format that was as generous to Schmidt as he tries to be to the newlyweds.
The filmmakers may imagine that the ridicule is equitably distributed, but it isn't. Schmidt is a middle-aged whipping boy from the Midwest. Transposing him from New York to Nebraska keeps this Schmidt at a slow-on-the-uptake disadvantage, soaking up ridicule from mockers whose own modus operandi is getting prematurely stale.

*1/2
TITLE: "About Schmidt"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting nudity with a humorous emphasis)
CREDITS: Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by Mr. Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley.
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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