Yeah, the critics are gaga over About Schmidt. But then they loved American Beauty, also. And like that other film, About Schmidt swings between the predictable and the implausible, with plenty of moments that are both. And have I mentioned how smug and condescending it is?
There are things to like about it. Jack Nicholson is capable of showing more than one emotion at a time. Howard Hesseman brings some depth to a badly written role. Dermot Mulroney's sports a world class mullet. I chuckled out loud four or five times. And the movie wants to be about something.
But go back to that mullet. You can tell almost everything about each character in this movie simply based on the way she or he looks: Mulroney's got a mullet so he's shallow. Kathy Bates looks like an earth mother so she is. In fact, this movie lost me in the first five minutes when we are introduced to Nicholson who is an actuary for an insurance company. Guess what? He's repressed emotionally! Can you imagine that! An actuary who's repressed! How original!
Actually, I suspected we were in trouble in the first shots, "artfully" framing Omaha. Static shots of office buildings. No people. Gray. Omaha. Uh oh. Then we're shown the "Woodman" building, home of the Woodman Insurance Company where Nicholson works. "Woodman"? "Made of wood." Get it? Beware of movies that use symbolic names.
And has there ever been a movie that told so much and showed so little? Towards the beginning of the movie, Nicholson becomes a "foster parent" to a child in Africa — one of those $22/month arrangements — to whom he writes letters. The letters allow Nicholson to do voice overs throughout the movie as he talks about his feelings about the people around him. In the first letter, for example, we find out how angry Nicholson is at his wife. That's how we find out how important his daughter is to him. On and on. What happened to making a movie that showed us those feelings?
The letters ploy really put me off for another reason. The letters are meant to amuse us because Schmidt writes to this 6-year-old African kid as if he were an American adult, advising him to join a fraternity when he goes to college and complaining about "rattling around" his big house. Some of it's funny, but it requires turning Nicholson's character into a moron without the slightest sense of what life is like for his foster son. It's wildly implausible, it's a cheap and uninvolving way to tell a story, and it shows the film's willingness to betray its characters for the sake of a laugh.
But there aren't any real characters in the movie anyway. Just ideas for characters. "Emotionally repressed actuary." "Sleazy, shallow fiance." "Earth mother." "Imbecilic brother." Sometimes the characters do reveal something more about themselves. But we're never sure why. For example, you'll end up liking Mulroney's character more at the end than at the beginning, but he's done and said nothing to deserve that change. We come to know more about Nicholson's daughter (Hope Davis) as the movie progresses but that's only because at first all we know of her is the idealized sentences Nicholson writes to his foster son. There's no real character change or revelation, just some overly-dramatic scenes in which carefully scripted angers emerge. The acting is better than the script, but there's only so much an actor can do with wooden characters and predictable set pieces.
Ultimately, the script and direction are unbearably smug. This is a movie about an "ordinary guy" who has made it to retirement age without facing his feelings or those of the people around him. Ok. But its point of view is outside and above: Laugh at Schmidt. Pity Schmidt. Never: Feel what Schmidt feels. Never: Think the way Schmidt thinks. Never: Be Schmidt.
Because the script is so bad, this movie is just about a shoo-in to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Because Kathy Bates plays an earth mother who brings an embarrassingly predictable sense of life to the film, and because it's a "brave role" (= she gets naked in it), she'll be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Because it is set in America's heartland and defies normal narrative conventions (= it's disconnected and really boring), it'll be nominated for Best Director. Because it's smug and thinks it's about despair, it'll be nominated for Best Picture.