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ABOUT SCHMIDT (article first published : 2003-03-16)

Widely lauded as another triumph for writer-director Alexander Payne, hitherto noted for 1999's Election, About Schmidt is a perfect vehicle for Jack Nicholson's dry comic talents. And his title role, which has notched him his 12th Oscar nomination, is the least glamorous of his long career.

A thoughtful, understated and quite captivating film melding black comedy with moments of torment and poignancy, it is the story of a depressed and repressed chubby, frustrated and decidely bland man who has devoted most of his life to the insurance industry.

On his retirement, Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) ponders where all his years went, what they amounted to. And it doesn't lift his spirits any when, already feeling wasted and worthless, he catches sight of a lifetime's work taped up in boxes in a company storeroom, marked for the dusty archives.

Decades of loneliness and anger come bubbling to the surfaceand he becomes even more despondent when he considers having to face his remaining years with a wife he has taken for granted, almost resents, and who has planned for them to trek about in a mobile home.

In a bid to try to lend some meaning to his dulling life, Schmidt secretly decides, after watching a TV appeal for foster parents, to contribute $22 monthly to sponsor the care of a six-year-old Tanzanian boy.

And he starts to write regularly to the lad, delivering unintentionally hilarious moments as he treats these letters like diary entries to unleash facts and thoughts on his sorry state.

When a tragedy occurs, Schmidt gets the chance to rechannel his energy, tread a new path to fulfillment, and sets out for Denver in his newly acquired mobile home to visit his estranged daughter, Jeannie (Hope David), It becomes his mission to try to dissuade her from marrying a loser waterbed salesman, a "nincompoop" named Randall (Dermot Mulroney, an absolute hoot in thick moustache and ponytail).

En route, Schmidt gets more than expected - not least a shoulder to lean on at a trailer park and, later, a shared hot tub with his daughter's future mum-in-law, a loud and no-nonsense woman played to perfection by Kathy Bates.

Nicholson - dowdy, downbeat, pitiful and saying more with a single facial expression than many actors might in a five minute monologue - is not the film's only star up for an Oscar. Bates is also in the running and the two will certainly be hard to beat on March 23.

Also featuring Howard Hesseman, as Schmidt's longtime pal, About Schmidt is a dark satire about humanity, aspirations and frailties that should do particularly well at the local box-office. It's well worth seeing. Rating: 8/10. Billy Suter




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