Old Jack Swings

Superb, moving road movie with Nicholson on brilliant form

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DIRECTED BY Alexander Payne

STARRING Jack Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis

Opens January 24, Cert 15, 125 mins

A scathing social satire, a superannuated road movie, a bleak slice of rainy grey Nebraskan realism, and a desperate, heartbreaking redemptive odyssey, About Schmidt is everything, and more, that we’ve come to expect from writer/director and Midwestern visionary Alexander Payne.

Having eviscerated the abortion debate in Citizen Ruth and political guile in Election, this time Payne takes an epic swipe at themes of love, loss, family and the meaning of life.

Here Jack Nicholson, leathery, puffed, with lank comb-over hair and yet somehow ennobled, is the eponymous 66-year-old Omaha actuary lost in a late-life crisis. Newly retired and suddenly bereaved, Schmidt decides to drive to Denver in his 35-foot Winnebago to dissuade his daughter Jeannie (Davis) from marrying incompetent water bed salesman Randall (Mulroney). Along this journey, in what is ostensibly genre-defying and completely anathema to the road movie, he actually learns very little about himself. Or does he?

Coupled with last year’s towering turn in The Pledge, About Schmidt will be read as the startling apogee of late-era Nicholson (and an apposite companion piece to the posturing of Easy Rider). And it’s true that his performance here is a marvel of middle-aged anonymity, a miscellany of facial ticks, twitches and grimaces that deftly efface all but the tiniest hints of the Nicholson persona. Even so, it’s ultimately the cold hand of Payne that takes Nicholson and ‘Schmidt to such great heights. From throwaway scenes, like the grieving Schmidt lathering himself in his dead wife’s face cream, to cold behavioural observations, like the painfully polite interaction of Schmidt and Randall, down to the consistently lugubrious grey-skies static camera shooting style, this is a film of ostensibly modest but utterly effective directorial touches.

And all the while, within this grand design, Payne teases us with the possibility of redemption for Schmidt. Will he find it on the road? No. At his wife’s funeral? Not there. At his daughter’s wedding? No chance. And just when you think that this is the bleakest film since early Kieslowski, it finally crashes into view. And it will floor you.


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