The final act of any career is what the artist makes of it. Some will cash their cheques and coast along with passion projects like Paul McCartney or the sale of their back catalogue like Bob Dylan. Others will continue to chisel out their filmography with drab hands and easy cash like Bruce Willis. Some will cater to their passions; others will take the backhander and very few will finesse it so well that they can do both. Jack Nicholson feels like a man that could do both, and he did that with the final few films of his career. About Schmidt was his last gasp at Academy Awards success, and although he fell just short, it doesn’t matter all that much.
Even if he didn’t manage one last gasp of success in the new dawn of the century, About Schmidt still offers Nicholson the opportunity to embrace the twilight years. Many actors fear that. Michael Caine spoke of it when he worked with Nicholson on Blood and Wine, a feature few remember but marked a rewarding experience for Caine, who persevered on through the tender times of age to produce some of his best work. Like a fine wine, Nicholson explores the newfound relationship he has with the camera and his abilities as a performer. He is not as spry as he used to be, but he still holds within him that enviable charm and manic expression, although director Alexander Payne reserves that for moments few and far between.
Instead, the two capture the exacerbated pain of retirement and living the nine to five with ruthless routine. As soon as the clock points to that release of 5pm, Nicholson’s Warren R. Schmidt snaps back to reality and sighs his way back home. It is a bleak and unimpressive life, and the terror of uniformity is not far off from the point of Payne’s work here. The lack of happiness or frustration leads to a self-made inequity where people bob through life without achieving their dreams or avoiding their disasters. That will happen to most, and for most within About Schmidt, at the dinner parties celebrating retirement or the reserved hushed traumas between a daughter and father, it will not matter. About Schmidt does well to make the depression of idleness a captivating experience and a stern warning to those that live their lives like Warren Schmidt.
To live as Schmidt does in the opening of About Schmidt is to not engage with life properly, or at least that seems to be what Payne implies as the escapism takes hold and Nicholson’s performance jolts to life alongside Kathy Bates and Hope Davis. They are a trio stumped by reconciliation and new avenues of life that they had yet to experience while they ground out the nine to five, praying one day they’d own a little motor home to tour the world in. Plans are scuppered sometimes for worse, sometimes for better. It’s the journey of figuring out whether those plans were worth pursuing that makes for the most interesting of adventures. Payne must have known that when directing About Schmidt.