A few years ago the writer-director Alexander Payne gave us the wonderfully quirky dark comedy "Election," in which Reese Witherspoon is a high school senior obsessed with winning the ASB election and Matthew Broderick is the social studies teacher determined to keep her from winning. The genius of the film was that underlying the comedy was the classic hero's tragic flaw of hubris, which Payne used to make us pay dearly for our laughs. Whenever we thought we knew where the film was going, he would execute a sharp right or left turn and take us down the road toward tragedy. It was a brilliant piece of writing and directing, one of the best films of 1999, and led me, at least, to expect that his new one would have the same offbeat power and excitement.
Instead, Payne has given us a monotonous two hours of Jack-shtick, in which Jack Nicholson runs through his very limited repertoire of comic takes and double-takes as Warren Schmidt, recent retiree and unexpected widower, who in the course of the film journeys to his daughter's wedding. I do not blame Mr. Nicholson for the film's failure. It is so underwritten that by the end we know no more about Warren than we did at the beginning; it's no wonder Nicholson fell back on those cheesy actor's tricks, in what I can only suppose was a desperate effort to keep things moving. Lewis Begley's novel, on which the film is based, was about a successful lawyer in New York who's a son of a bitch to everyone, and takes a road trip in which he finds out something about himself. But for the film Payne has forgotten to create a believable human being, and so we're left with a movie that that has no core.
There's a strange running relationship in the film, and that is an epistolary one in which Schmidt writes his life story out in letters to Ndugu, a six-year-old in Tanzania, whom he has 'adopted' through a television appeal for $22 a month. It could have been powerful, even shattering, as this failure of a man pours out his heart to the unseen child. Instead we learn only what is already obvious; he is a man with no insight into himself, and neither he nor we gain any greater understanding from anything he writes.
Schmidt has a thirty-something daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis in a moving performance that comes close to saving the film), who has somehow survived a life with this cold and forbidding man and is now about to marry Randall, a dumb and unattractive waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney). But she is bright and aware, and we are given no hint of anything that would make her fall in love with him - another failure of the film. Kathy Bates, as Randall's mother, tries her best to make a cartoon character into a real person, but she is defeated by the script.
We are perhaps expected to make connections here that Payne has indicated but not fleshed out: Twenty-five or thirty years ago Warren's wife Helen (June Squibb) had a brief affair with his best friend, which Warren finds out about after her death; is this to be related to Jeannie's perhaps future affairs because she is so much brighter than her husband? We may hope but we'll never know, because although we meet Helen we learn only that she is the classic dutiful wife, and Jeannie gives no hint that she is looking beyond Randall. So what was the point?
"About Schmidt" gives every early sign of being a great hit, with packed houses laughing uproariously at Nicholson's shtick and Bates's one-liners. But that's not nearly enough to make a real film, and after "Election" raised our hopes this one is a great disappointment.