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A Crisis in Cardigans



Due to early holiday deadlines, we were unable to confirm the slate of new movies for the first week of the year. We anticipate About Schmidt to be among them. -- Ed.

*About Schmidt (R)
New Line Cinema

It's tempting to lump Alexander Payne's About Schmidt into the unsanctioned genre of "midlife crisis film." These predictably inspiring tales usually feature a woman toppling the tyranny of a sour marriage or a mean-spirited codger learning to love again through forced proximity to an insufferably cute 6-year-old. The sine qua non for any midlife crisis film, however, is the affirmation that AARP members can still have sex.

Arthur Schmidt is 20 years late for his midlife crisis. The browbeaten insurance salesman has been so thoroughly emasculated by his wife of 42 years (June Squibb) that he pees sitting down. No sports car or inappropriately aged vixen can save him from the results of four decades worth of regret.

The film opens during the final-second countdown of his 35-year career at an Omaha insurance firm. Rendered with loving disenchantment by Jack Nicholson, Schmidt is a flannel-suit stalwart of faded middle-class convention: a man cardigan sweaters are made for. At his retirement party, the toasts stink of insincerity and serve as a harbinger of a burgeoning existential crisis.

On a checkup visit to his old office, Schmidt's unctuous replacement makes it clear that he has no need for his guidance. After being ushered out the door, he discovers his life's work -- boxes of carefully labeled insurance files -- plopped next to the dumpster.

After his wife suddenly drops dead from a blood clot, Schmidt's kicks into overdrive. He finds no solace from his retirement trophy: a 35-foot "Adventurer" Winnebago, or his daughter (Hope Davis) who is inexplicably engaged to a mulleted mattress salesman (Dermot Mulroney). Making an unsettling discovery of his wife's secret life, Schmidt hits the road on a history tour of his former self. He discovers his childhood home has become a tire showroom and his fraternity at the University of Kansas contains few traces of his former self.

A man of limited verbal capacity, Schmidt's inner life emerges through the confessional letters he faithfully scribes to Ngudu, a 6-year-old Tanzanian orphan he sponsors through the Save the Children Foundation. We learn that his job meant nothing and that his wife had long since turned into a woman he neither knew, nor liked. Much of this merely confirms what Nicholson's performance already indicated, but witnessing a lifetime of stifled emotion find such an inappropriate outlet is as much a pleasure as it is a narrative vehicle.

Schmidt is not the Jack Nicholson you're used to; he does not simply slip on the personae of roles past. It's new territory for Nicholson, and easily his most interesting film since the sexual dramas of the '70s.

Director Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth) does a remarkable job of playing with the tension between the lower middle-class vulgarity of Schmidt's in-laws and his own Midwestern propriety. Kathy Bates is pure joy as Mulroney's mother; her hippie aesthetic and brazen sexuality can't contain an apoplectic mean streak.

Just when you think Schmidt's opposition to this undeniably ugly clan will break down in a feel-good frenzy, it solidifies even further. But there's little he can do. Senior citizenship is not a passport to easy epiphanies. Such startling honesty doesn't just elude clich but makes this film a brave confrontation with an existential quagmire: What happens when life's purported happy ending becomes an even greater hurtle?

An Omaha native, Payne captures his home turf with a combination of authenticity and scorn. But his contempt and penchant for ugliness is overwhelmed by his empathy.

Schmidt's trail of tears to self-discovery finds no easy answer, and as such it defies the conventions of a midlife crisis film. Payne doles out just enough redemption to not make us want to throw ourselves into the Platte river (not that we'd drown). About Schmidt challenges widespread assumptions about security, masculinity and love. It is easily the prime pick of an otherwise unremarkable Academy Award homestretch.

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