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Stuck in the Middle 

Writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are among a small group of America's most talented filmmakers. In 1996, they collaborated on Citizen Ruth, a film that made a sympathetic figure of a pregnant woman addicted to inhaling aerosol fumes and infuriated right-to-lifers and pro-choice advocates in equal numbers. In Election (1999) they skewered a high school goody-two-shoes and a self-righteous teacher while making a dumb jock their unlikely hero. Now in About Schmidt they deliver a deadpan, almost plotless, but ultimately wrenching tale of middle America's everyman.

Directed by Payne, About Schmidt is the story of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), an Omaha businessman we meet on the day of his retirement at age 66. Warren worked for more than three decades at a life insurance company where his specialty was reading lifespan formulas to calculate insurance risk and profitability. He was good at his job, and his job was imminently safe and provided his family at least modest affluence. Warren is married to his wife Helen (June Squibb) for 42 years until her sudden death from a stroke not long after Warren's retirement. Together Warren and Helen raised thirtysomething daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who now lives in Denver in an atmosphere of disappointment and desperation.

Much of the narrative in About Schmidt concerns Warren's involvement in Jeannie's wedding plans. And though the film's events are hardly those of spine-tingling excitement, we always remain uncertain about what's going to happen next. Jeannie is engaged to a doofus waterbed salesman named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), who is the son of squabbling middle-age hippies Roberta (Kathy Bates) and Larry Hertzel (Howard Hesseman). Roberta and Larry haven't been married for years, and Larry is remarried. But with new wife Saundra (Cheryl Hamada) in tow, Larry seems to spend about as much time with Roberta as ever, and the former spouses continue to relate to each other with familiar acrimony. Though Warren is a man of measured opinions and few words, he's horrified by the entire Hertzel clan, and he finally screws up his determination to convince Jeannie not to make the mistake of her life.

Much of the attention About Schmidt has garnered has focused on Nicholson's performance -- and understandably, since he will surely never give a braver one. From the time of Easy Rider forward, Jack has mostly portrayed the lovable rogue with a gleam in his eye. He was still the rebel, if no longer so charming, in As Good As It Gets. But Jack has set aside his entire Jack persona to inhabit Warren Schmidt. From the public Jack we have known so long, who knew that he could make us believe Walter's musing question to his departed wife, "Was I the man you wanted to spend your life with?" But he does.

As they routinely do, Payne and Taylor walk a tightrope with their characters in About Schmidt. This picture is resolutely anti-Hollywood in its view of the physical human animal. No one is attractive. People are overweight, tasteless and ignorant of their shortcomings. Inner beauty is also in woefully short supply. The characters are unfaithful, ungrateful, snappish and sour. Meaner filmmakers would play such figures for cheap, superior laughs. Less-skilled storytellers would soon leave us wondering why we should continue to involve ourselves with such dolts. But just when About Schmidt takes us to the precipice of discomfort, we realize what the film is up to thematically.

This is a movie interested in dimension. It is constantly shifting the angle from which we see its characters. There is more to everyone we meet than we initially realize. Natively taciturn, Warren has never shown Jeannie the love he feels for her. Perhaps encouraged by her mother to do so, Jeannie has nursed small resentments until they've grown into unreasonable grudges. As a wife, Roberta is a fight looking for a provocation. But she's a surprisingly nurturing mother. Larry seems a laughable gas-bag, but that doesn't mean he isn't fundamentally decent. With his ridiculous tonsorial style and dimwitted attraction to crackpot business schemes, Randall is easy to dismiss as a buffoon. But he may be the most stable and best-hearted person we encounter. In short, people aren't as good as we hope, but they're often better than we fear.

Payne and Taylor obviously don't believe in sweeping transformation. But they do think human beings can learn and grow in small but nonetheless crucial ways. Warren is a man without remarkable attributes. His many sins are mostly petty, but they aren't offset by many virtues. Three questions this film manipulates with great skill are: will Warren discover what is right for him to do? Even if he does, will he do it? And even if he does do it, will it matter? In the final analysis stands an over-arching question: does anything matter? As the filmmakers provide their answer in the picture's final frames, most of us are reduced to tears.

click to enlarge Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is less than thrilled with the marriage of Randall (Dermot Mulroney, left) to daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) in About Schmidt. -
  • Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is less than thrilled with the marriage of Randall (Dermot Mulroney, left) to daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) in About Schmidt.

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