CAST: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Kathy Bates, Howard Hesseman, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, James Crawley, Tung Ha, Cheryl Hamada, Steve Heller, Chris Huse, June Squibb, Mark Venhuizen

DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne

SCREENWRITERS: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor


Warren Schmidt is a drained, paunchy, disillusioned 66-year-old actuary who's been patted on the back, given an un-festive party, and politely shown the door by the people at the Omaha insurance office where he's spent most of his adult life. Suffering enforced retirement in characteristic silence, he mopes about the house, runs dreary errands and does all he can to avoid intimacy with his wife Helen, a fiercely domestic, proudly dowdy woman who turns him off more and more with each passing day--though he wouldn't dream of mentioning his chronic revulsion to her.

The one thing Helen does well is die (naturally, she's cleaning house at the time of her demise). That leaves Warren with an excuse to explore a future where he can right the wrongs inflicted upon him during his boring, buttoned-down past. He decides to start his odyssey by driving his mobile home to Denver, where he intends to prevent his pill of a daughter from marrying a balding, pony-tailed waterbed salesman (the question is, why would anybody want to wed this whiny, aging brat, as played with an irritating lack of charm by Hope Davis?).

Here's a more pressing question: Does the role of Warren Schmidt fit Jack Nicholson like a glove? And the answer is no--not if you're talking about the nasty, snake-eyed, verbally savage, lethally seductive Jack we've all come to know and love. Yet, at festivals from Cannes to New York, audiences and critics have been rapturous in their response to this new, vulnerable, naked-souled Nicholson. To be fair, he does give it his best shot, dutifully hiding the Nicholson charisma beneath a dull facade. But I suspect the actor must have sensed that Warren Schmidt is, at heart, a shallow, self-pitying bore, a man traveling from nowhere to nowhere with little style or purpose.

In the end, this patronizing here's-what-heartlanders-are-really-like adaptation of Louis Begley's novel didn't need Jack Nicholson. It needed a stronger screenplay than the shambles provided by director Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, a clumsy mix of drab realism and bawdy humor that is both unreal and unfunny. Well, maybe it's funny when Kathy Bates, as the obscenity-spewing mother of the groom-to-be (Dermot Mulroney), strips totally, frontally nude and plops herself down into a Jacuzzi with the horrified Nicholson, but the episode is also embarrassing and pointless. It's just giddily gross, and no more believable than the widower's extended, cornily cathartic correspondence with an African orphan. (Guess who teaches whom life's most prescious lesson?)

I love it when actors struggle to broaden their range. On the other hand, I can't wait until the old Jack is b-a-a-a-a-ck. And I hope the next time he gets together with director Payne, the man who gave us the razor-sharp "Citizen Ruth" and "Election," they'll come up with something genuinely amusing and meaningful. "About Schmidt," for all its phony posturing, is about nothing at all.