In one of the many simultaneously funny and heartbreaking scenes in Alexander Payne's wonderful About Schmidt, recently retired Omaha insurance salesman Jack Nicholson steals away to a local Dairy Queen and orders a medium Blizzard. That he has to sneak off from his wife (June Squibb) to do it is telling enough; that he treats himself to a medium instead of a large speaks volumes about his character's diminished sense of self-worth. Payne, the great satirist behind Citizen Ruth and Election, loves to populate his films with these throwaway details, which in About Schmidt accumulate into a portrait of Midwestern life that's almost chilling in its exactitude. Virtually swallowed whole by his knit sweaters, which underline the lumpy shapelessness of the man as much as the body, Nicholson immerses himself in the sour, curdled angst of a career middle-manager. His retirement promises "a new chapter" in his life, but as an insurance agent, he sees through that awful cliché: His actuarial tables give him roughly seven years to live. Meanwhile, his entire contribution to the insurance business is sealed away in file boxes, awaiting the next trash pickup. Nicholson quietly despises his devoted wife, who waits on him hand and foot, but when she dies unexpectedly, he winds up adrift, clinging to his resentful daughter (Hope Davis) and penning bitter confessionals to a Tanzanian "foster child" named Ndugu. Intent on breaking up Davis' impending marriage to waterbed salesman Dermot Mulroney, Nicholson takes his new Winnebago on a roundabout journey to their home in the Denver suburbs, where he contends with his future son-in-law's lascivious mother (Kathy Bates) and the family's other black sheep. As one of the few major directors who care about what happens between the coasts, Payne has a nuanced and deeply ambivalent take on Middle America that stands in sharp relief to the Heartland sentimentality accompanying most Hollywood ventures to the area. Every frame feels bracingly authentic and lived-in, soaking in a gray landscape that seems both banal and oddly comforting, depending on how each character comes to terms with a life of pot roasts, antique collectibles, lazy susans, Dan Fogelberg songs, and miles of wood paneling on the walls. But the grand tackiness of Payne's world is perfectly balanced by the distinct warmth of home, which Nicholson's character resists with a narrow-mindedness that only deepens his sadness and alienation. Slipping effortlessly from comedy to pathos, often within the same scene, About Schmidt follows a redeemable bastard without soft-pedaling his capacity for appalling selfishness on one end and unexpected generosity on the other. Nicholson's high-wire act, culminating in the most audacious reception scene this side of Late Marriage, creates one of the richest characters of his career and helps confirm Payne as a peerless poet of fly-over country.
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