Nicholson plays ‘everyman’ in his Oscar-nominated role

I was excited to see “About Schmidt” for two reasons: first, Alexander Payne, who directed the movie, also directed 1999’s “Election,” which is the best movie of all time, and second, I heard Kathy Bates did a hot nude scene. Needless to say, I was disappointed on both counts. It sounds naïve in retrospect, but before seeing the film I was completely under the impression that “About Schmidt” was the sequel to “Election,” overlooking the fact that the two movies have no actors in common and the title of “About Schmidt” makes it relatively clear what the movie is, well, about. Still, I sat through the entire movie half hoping that Reese Witherspoon would descend on any given scene in a helicopter screaming, “F— me, Mr. M!” And then the laughs would begin.

I was wrong; although that scene did happen, the laughs did not begin. In fact, in “About Schmidt,” the laughs never begin. This is where Alexander Payne confuses me; he keeps switching things up. “Election” introduced me to the concept of black comedy. Situated in the theater between my mom and my grandma, I got the distinct impression that it was not acceptable to laugh when the movie opened with a middle-aged man excitedly spitting the words, “Her p—— gets so wet!” at the camera. By the end of the movie, after my mom had murmured without a trace of irony, “I thought this was a Nickelodeon film” and I had buried my face in my bucket of Orville Redenbacher’s, I assumed that I had been sufficiently schooled in what was funny and what was not. Yet, as I attempted to put my black comedy etiquette into practice and laughed at a few key tragedies during the beginning of “About Schmidt,” people turned around and looked at me as though I had personally asked each and every one of them to please help me check myself for testicular cancer. So I guess I’m not the person to ask for advice on whether to laugh or not, but I can say what I thought worked about the movie and what didn’t.

Jack Nicholson, in the role of Warren Schmidt, isn’t funny so much as he is cute. I realize that calling Jack Nicholson cute is like calling Christina Aguilera a person, but the way he ambles around like a lost bear cub and looks like he has just combed his hair with a balloon makes you want to dress him up in ribbons for a tea-party. At least, that’s always been my boyhood Jack Nicholson fantasy. He speaks with a restricted, nervously sunny cadence that is reminiscent of William H. Macy’s defeated characterization of Jerry Lundegaard in “Fargo;” it’s the sad tone of voice used by a man who is trying to say something so brightly that it can’t be shot down, when all along he knows that he’s dead on arrival.

Hope Davis gives a brilliantly understated performance as Schmidt’s daughter, whose primary role is to be annoyed by her father’s endearing ineptitudes, and throughout the movie Davis splendidly expresses a confused outrage akin to what someone who has just been savagely violated by Winnie the Pooh might feel.

Dermot Mulroney, as her oafish fiancé Randall, delivers every line as though he thinks he is the funniest comic relief since that dwarf in “The Lord of the Rings,” and is in fact consistently outperformed by his mullet.

And then there’s Kathy Bates as Randall’s mother, who appears in scenes that are alternately hilarious (spoon-feeding Jack Nicholson while regaling him with tales of her orgasmic prowess) and nauseating (attempting to put said prowess into action). Poor Kathy Bates. She thinks that, because she did a tasteful nude scene, she’ll be given the nod for Best Supporting Actress, when everybody knows it’s attractive actresses made to look unattractive who get the awards (cases in point: Halle Berry, Hilary Swank). And besides, Bates was never attractive in the first place.

Sadly, I think this is a case of Alexander Payne’s subversive humor passing itself off as art, which audiences will recognize as easily as they recognized the fat woman in the skirt sitting on a park bench next to Matthew Broderick in “Election;” at a moment when the audience’s attention is sure to be focused on the protagonist, she uncrosses her legs. It is most likely the same juvenile licentiousness that drives him to decorate the background of his movies with an occasional flash of genitalia or anatomical innuendo, à la Brad Pitt’s character in “Fight Club.” I don’t know how he gets this stuff from photographer James Glennon who, judging by the look of Payne’s movies, seems to take his work very seriously.

Overall, however, “About Schmidt” shows a more mature Payne, who is trying to come to grips with all the stupid people in the world. While “Election” was a full-out attack against characters that Payne obviously hated, in “About Schmidt” he’s merely expressing his discontent with characters that are almost familial, and is doing so with warmth rather than malice. This is probably why “About Schmidt” falters as a comedy: The audience cares too much about the characters to laugh at them. And I don’t like that. Alexander Payne is no good to us happy; we need to lock him in a room with Carrot Top and the Dell Dude or something for him to create the masterful sequel to “Election.”

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