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Buy 'About Schmidt' by Louis Begley.

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Schmidt Happens: Jack Nicholson drives his Winnebago across the Midwest in 'About Schmidt.'

Grumpy Old Man

'About Schmidt' delivers Midwestern angst lite

By Richard von Busack

SQUARELY middle-of-the-road picture that it is, About Schmidt seems neither the best film of the year, nor the vicious, heartless satire the minority opinion claims. Seldom has a film been so unrecognizable when seen from the viewpoints of its reviewers.

Like the title character's Winnebago, About Schmidt meanders down the pike with Jack Nicholson at the wheel. A film like this--or like the TV program King of the Hill--offends almost no one by taking jabs at both sides. TV's Hank Hill, the propane-fetishizing salesman from Arlen, Texas, commonly finds himself stuck between liberal wing nuts and corrupt Republicans. The show joshes those who aren't smack in the center. And About Schmidt is equally joshing.

Alexander Payne's film, based on a novel by Louis Begley, stars Nicholson as Warren Schmidt. He's that axiomatic square, an insurance man from Omaha. Following his retirement and the death of his wife, he putters his way from Omaha to Colorado to attend his daughter's wedding. In Denver, he stays with his daughter's in-laws, the Hertzels. They're a foul-mouthed, invasive clan who inflame Schmidt's nerves.

Kathy Bates plays the family's earth mother. Bates' disconcerting nude scene has been looked at as everything from a deliberate shock to a transcendence of the beauty myth. It seems to me that Roberta's crime isn't that her breasts sag, but that she's overbearing. She can make the squeamish Schmidt writhe when she talks about her body, and she likes to talk about her body. Roberta is a bad hostess for embarrassing a guest. Still, Schmidt's sexual repression certainly isn't her fault.

A few critics have accused About Schmidt of cruelty for the early scene in which Schmidt's wife, Helen (June Squibb), drops dead while vacuuming. This supposedly patronizing end of a housewife has a creepy poetry. It's the vacuum of death--first you get the dust, and then the dust gets you. And showing Schmidt's marriage in a hate-stage shouldn't be too much for an audience to handle. Mixed emotions are a part of the best marriages, though American critics are still horribly nervous when this is suggested onscreen. If Payne makes these feelings of dislike in a marriage extreme, this hostility adds weight to the satire, and the film could use a little weight.

About Schmidt hardly seems radical when compared with Jonathan Franzen's terrific novel The Corrections. In The Corrections, disease and old age swallow family man Alfred Lambert, whose stubbornness and numbness chilled those who knew him. Franzen plays the dull safety of a St. Louis suburb against mad, rich, sexually loose American cities in the 1990s, making both sides of life look exotic.

Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt (1922), with its early portrayal of Plains-state angst, shows that About Schmidt's satire of the circumscribed life isn't anything new. Did anyone who described About Schmidt as a devastating look at Middle America actually read Babbitt? Late in life, George F. Babbitt, a real estate agent in the imaginary Midwestern city of Zenith, rebels against the straight world, but neither high art nor low partying offers solace to this yearning middle-class man.

When he finally does settle down, Babbitt admits to his son, "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life." Babbitt "can never be anything but Babbitt, even though he has a glimmering recognition of what it is about being Babbitt that he doesn't like," as Lewis biographer Mark Schorer writes. About Schmidt has almost exactly the same ending as Babbitt. In Western movies, it's the gunfight that lets you know the show's about to end. In Midwestern movies, it's the climactic embrace of disappointment.

Michael Caine's performance in The Quiet American is still 2002's best, a more penetrating and sad look at middle-aged decline and how a man's moral fiber might help him fight it. Still, Nicholson is the main Oscar-buzz candidate for making himself studiously dull and styling a combover that makes him look like actor Kevin McCarthy.

This part is supposed to be a radical departure for Nicholson, but is it? Schmidt embodies the slow confusion, turtlelike truculence and solitude of Nicholson's roles in his younger days. The aimlessness that got him on the back of a motorcycle in Easy Rider puts him on the road again, only it's a Winnebago now (and so the joke in Albert Brooks' Lost in America is played seriously here). Nicholson went to nigh-expressionist extremes in Batman. He slides back here to silent-comic reactions and slow burns. It's a clever strategy, and he carries the picture.

Still, Nicholson's charisma alone isn't enough to sell a movie (remember The Pledge?). About Schmidt is a road movie, and that's part of its appeal. How many people have promised themselves a road trip across America for years--and how many have had to postpone this dream? As we've seen in Fargo and The Straight Story, what the Midwest represents in the movies is space, time and a friendliness so unexpected that it seems almost extraterrestrial.

It's been strange enough to see reviews describing the mild, hopeful and above all pleasant About Schmidt as bitter or brilliant. It's been even stranger to hear critics describe the Nebraska countryside as "ugly" or "drab." There is no deliberate ugliness in the film's Nebraska, no feedlots or chemical plants; there are riversides and rolling hills.

Living with green open space is a privilege that only rich people or Midwesterners enjoy, and being able to share these big skies and roads is the aspect of About Schmidt's success that no one seems to have mentioned.

About Schmidt (R; 125 min.), directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley, photographed by James Glennon and starring Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, plays at selected theaters.

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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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