Jack Nicholson strips himself of all vanity in About Schmidt, so we might as well start polishing his Oscar now. As Albert Schmidt, the vice president of an insurance company based in Omaha, Nicholson lets everything go ' his hair, his waistline, his way of signaling to an audience that, at any moment, he may blow the movie wide open. To its credit, About Schmidt never blows wide open. Instead, it takes Albert Schmidt's hermetically sealed life and pries open one of the corners with a screwdriver. Retired and widowed in what appears to be the same week, Albert doesn't know what to do with himself; he's a mortality statistic waiting to happen. Then he hits the road in an RV. Like Easy Rider, About Schmidt is an end-of-the-road movie.
It's also a comedy. At least, that's what it says on the label. But all the jokes seem to be at the expense of...well, people like you and me ' middling folks muddling through. When Albert arrives in Denver to talk his daughter (Hope Davis, even more pinched than usual) out of marrying a waterbed salesman with a Fu Manchu/mullet combo (Dermot Mulroney), he's greeted by a family of circus freaks. Actually, they may just be ex-hippies, but writer-director Alexander Payne seems to think that's the same thing. Kathy Bates' Roberta, mother of the groom-to-be, gets the worst of it, having to lower her naked heft into a hot tub occupied by a Percodan-stoked Albert. The audience I saw the movie with gasped with disgust.
If you can get past the condescension, About Schmidt has a lot going for it ' none of it going very fast, mind you. Payne, who grew up in Omaha, has a feeling for the Farm Belt and its vast plains of nothingness. And he has an eye/ear for detail. Like a dog, Albert has been potty-trained, forced by his wife to sit down while peeing. And he speaks in the flat cadences of a Cornhusker, leaning on clichÃs like we all do. There were moments when I thought that if the small talk got any smaller it would disappear altogether. Luckily, that was usually about when Albert would pen another letter to Ndugu, a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy he's sponsoring through a charity. Only to a kid he's never met does our Nowhere Man pour out his heart, such as it is.