"The Descendants" opens today, and it's a movie I loved as much as Leitch did. Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, it definitely shares tendencies with his previous films -- goofy supporting characters, a real sense of place, a careful balance between comedy and drama -- but the Payne movie it's most closely compared to is "About Schmidt," his 2002 pseudo-road movie. It contains one of Jack Nicholson's best performances in far too long.
"About Schmidt" was Payne's follow-up film to "Election," his brilliantly satirical 1999 film about a resentful high school teacher (Matthew Broderick) tormented by a pushy, overachieving student (Reese Witherspoon). Topping "Election" was going to be hard, and with "About Schmidt" he didn't try. Instead, he went in a different direction. While "About Schmidt" was bitingly funny as well -- Payne and longtime co-writer Jim Taylor have a gift for devastatingly accurate portrayals of Midwestern life -- this was a much more poignant look at male failure. The laughs, you were expecting. The tears, they blindsided you.
Based on the novel by Louis Begley, "About Schmidt" is about Schmidt -- retiring insurance agent Warren Schmidt. Played by Nicholson with a paunch and comb over, Schmidt has lived a perfectly ordinary life. He's married, has a daughter, has a few close friends, and is leaving his job with plans to travel the country in a big Winnebago. But he quickly discovers that retired life is endlessly dull, forcing him to find something -- anything -- to fill the empty hours. That brings him to become a sponsor for an African boy, Ndugu, whom he starts writing lengthy letters to. And perhaps to his surprise (and certainly the audience's), Schmidt turns to Ndugu as a sort of confessor and therapist, especially after his wife's sudden death.
A large chunk of "About Schmidt" features Schmidt venturing from Omaha to Denver to talk his daughter (Hope Davis) out of marrying her idiot fiance (Dermot Mulroney). And while I find Kathy Bates' over-the-top mother-in-law to throw off the movie's delicate tonal balance -- "About Schmidt" is a dramedy, but she acts like she's in a sitcom -- there's such a rich sadness that hangs over the film that a few errant moments can't undo the overall spell. Much like "The Descendants," "About Schmidt" is a coming-of-age tale of a man who should have become a grownup a long time ago. Nicholson is very subtle in this film, but it seems to come from the inside out: Schmidt has no flair, no mannerisms, no quirks. His wife may have been the one who died, but it seems like Schmidt's been dead for years. But only through facing the golden years alone does Schmidt finally get any sense of what his life meant -- not that the answers are entirely obvious or heartwarming.
In the nine years since "About Schmidt" has come out, Payne went on to critical acclaim (and an Oscar) for "Sideways," while Nicholson has largely focused on being Jack, Hollywood Royalty. But when the right role calls for it, he can still knock your socks off. (He was great in Sean Penn's "The Pledge" and Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," albeit in very different ways.) But "About Schmidt" might be the crown jewel of his later career because you see so little of "Jack" in it. He turned down the star power, which only proved what a great actor he remains.