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If theres a persona that Jack Nicholson has nailed,better than almost anyone else,it is the irascible,dislikeable middle-aged fellow,thinning hair,thickening girth and all. Hes been heading this way right from the time he played the putative lover in Terms Of Endearment. Retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove is so pleased with himself its not funny: he parties with much younger women,and splashes about his pool noisily,completely unaware how irritating he is being to neighbour Shirley MacLaine,who is holding daughter Debra Wingers hand,as she (Winger) learns to live,and let go. In As Good As It Gets,he played an older version of this character: we can almost imagine Garrett Breedlove having grown into the misanthropic Melvin Udall. Set in his ways,borderline OCD,till he comes up against a woman fighting a noble fight,and discovers that he may be a bearable person after all.
In About Schmidt,Nicholson displays furrows that go deeper: his character is someone who needs to voice over his thoughts,speak them aloud,and write to someone who is a complete stranger,to better explain himself to himself. And to us. When the film opens,insurance man Warren Schmidt is on the verge of retirement,and his wife of many years has plans for the two of them. A daughter they love is getting married: the wife thinks it is a good thing,Schmidt thinks the husband-to-be is an unworthy jerk. A spiffy caravan has been acquired to carry them where they will,but Schmidt isnt altogether pleased: he bares his teeth at his wife in whats meant to be a smile even as his grumbling is audible only to us. And then suddenly,tragedy strikes,and he is left alone. To suddenly re-align himself with his universe,he decides to go on a road-trip: the plan is to fetch up at his daughters wedding earlier than planned,to stop it. Or something.
Director Alexander Payne has a terrific way with characters who lean sideways. In his lovely movie of the same name (Sideways),Paul Giamatti drinks red wine and makes caustic remarks as he goes along (yes,it is a road trip),learning this and that about himself. In his latest film,The Descendants,Payne puts George Clooney in a spot. But before that he asks us to believe in something thats hard : could any woman dump the dishy Clooney? In the film,Clooney discovers his status as a cuckold in the worst way possible. His wife is in a coma,lying immobile in a hospital bed,and he cant even yell at her. The Descendants turned out to have some nice things,but there was a lot about it that didnt rise off the screen (that Clooney didnt get an Oscar for this one was right; hes done better,and so has Payne).
But Payne doesnt put a finger wrong with Nicholson. And the actor doesnt let his director down: he puts himself out as Schmidt,the lunkhead who misreads gestures (a woman he meets on the way is merely being sympathetic,and he jumps on her),runs from intimacy (from his daughters to-be-mother-in-law who seems to be a prime example of a hippie in arrested development,nicely played by Kathy Bates),and generally behaves like a boor. And still makes us feel for him. Both for Payne,and Nicholson,About Schmidt is a triumph.