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Review: 'About Schmidt' a triumph

Nicholson terrific in charming film

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt."

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(CNN) -- "About Schmidt," a dark comedy from the brilliant mind of Alexander Payne, will undoubtedly earn Jack Nicholson his 12th Academy Award nomination, which will add to his current record as the most nominated actor ever. It may be a year for oft-nominated actors: Meryl Streep is likely to earn a 13th nomination for either "The Hours" or "Adaptation."

Nicholson's nomination will be well deserved: he is pure perfection as Warren Schmidt, a card-carrying "everyman" who has played by the rules his whole life, only to have the game changed in the final innings.

Schmidt is an average guy, who has lived an average life, in an average house, married for 42 years to an average woman (June Squibb), and together they've had an average daughter, whom Schmidt has essentially taken for granted her whole life.

Suddenly his bland, tidy, predictable existence is blown apart. In quick succession he's forced -- at the age of 66 -- to retire from his decades-long job as an actuary for an insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska; his wife drops dead; and his daughter, Jeannie, becomes engaged to underachieving loser named Randall (Dermot Mulroney from 1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding") who makes his living as a waterbed salesman.

Making connections

About Schmidt
Nicholson tries to break up the engagement of his daughter (Hope Davis) and her fiance (Dermot Mulroney).

Schmidt's life becomes a train wreck, as he realizes everything in his world that had any shred of meaning is now gone. They only human connection he has left is Jeannie (Hope Davis of 1998's "Next Stop Wonderland"), who now lives in Denver, and over the years that connection has become based more on habit than on love. He needs something to live for, and decides that his new mission in life is to prevent his daughter from marrying Randall.

He sets out in a 35-foot motor home in which he had planned to travel the country with his late wife. His journey to Denver becomes a quest of self-discovery, exploring his roots across Nebraska. The results of that tour are disappointing, to say the least.

And when he finally reaches his destination, he gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.

Jeannie is less then receptive to his new-found interest in her life, and Randall's parents are so far out in left field they make Randall look like a choirboy.

Expressing himself

Nicholson plays a recently retired insurance executive in "About Schmidt."

In a performance to rival Nicholson's, Kathy Bates plays Roberta Hertzel, Randall's free-wheeling, free-spirited earth mama with a passion for hot tubs, nudity, and sex. Howard Hesseman plays her ex-husband and Randall's father, but it's Bates who steals the show.

Schmidt is utterly horrified by Roberta. When she strips (yes, Bates has a nude scene) to join Schmidt in the hot tub, Nicholson's reaction is worth the price of admission.

After his wife's death -- in an odd but completely charming touch -- Schmidt begins sponsoring a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan for $22 a month, and begins corresponding with the child. His name is Ndugu Umbo and Schmidt's long letters to the boy are filled with the things he's left unsaid all his life. This outpouring of emotion from the older man to the small stranger is a thread throughout the film, and allows the viewer glimpses of Schmidt's inner turmoil.

Payne, along with his writing partner Jim Taylor, is one of the brightest lights and greatest talents working in film today. From "Citizen Ruth" (1996), which took a cock-eyed look at both sides of the abortion issue, to "Election" (1999), which put Reese Witherspoon on Hollywood's radar, he has consistently provided a uniquely adult and refreshingly intellectual voice to the art of filmmaking. He, and Taylor, explore the human condition with the keen eyes of social satirists. They excel at making the most uncomfortable situations deeply poignant and exceedingly human.

"About Schmidt" is undoubtedly one of the finest films of the year. If you're not deeply touched by this movie, check your pulse.

"About Schmidt" opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 13, expands to the top 20 markets on December 20, and then opens nationwide on January 3, 2003.

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