Get this: Jack Nicholson — still the epitome of cool at sixty-five — starring as an unhip, unhappy Nebraska actuary in About Schmidt. There's no bad-boy DNA in Warren Schmidt. He's recently retired and stuck in Omaha with Helen (June Squibb), his dowdy wife of forty-two years: "Who is this old woman living in my house?"
This is Nicholson without the devilish glint, without the raised eyebrow. It is also Nicholson at his bravest and riskiest. By banking his fires and staying alert to the smallest details, he delivers a monumental performance that blasts your expectations and batters your heart.
About Schmidt may well win Nicholson his fourth Oscar. But the real fun comes in watching him work with Alexander Payne, who is a major talent but also an off-Hollywood director (he's from Omaha, like Schmidt) who cooks up blistering satires (Citizen Ruth, Election) with his writing partner, Jim Taylor. Both are gloss-free mavericks, not given to coddling audiences.
The laughs sting in About Schmidt, which is basically a road movie as Schmidt reacts to Helen's death by taking to the highway in a Winnebago. His eventual destination is Denver, where his only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), will marry Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a mullet-headed water-bed salesman who Schmidt believes is beneath her.
Schmidt travels a bumpy road in that Winnebago, and the film hits a few plot holes. Payne has been accused of condescending to his characters. But Davis, as the neglected daughter, and Mulroney, as her husband, show bruises unlinked to caricature. Kathy Bates is a nonstop pleasure as Randall's full-bodied mom, a force of nature who drops her clothes to jump in a hot tub with Schmidt, the one scene (and it's a pip) where Nicholson gives his eyebrow a hilarious workout.
For all the laughs, About Schmidt cuts deepest when it stays most intimate: in the letters Schmidt writes to Ndugu, a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan he helps support; in the wedding speech he delivers without expressing the resentment he feels; in the final release that leaves him (and us) devastated. Nicholson's acting sets a new gold standard, making Schmidt a movie you won't forget.