View Full Version : The Nicholson Phenomenon

dave durbin
02-11-2003, 12:47 PM
The glorification of a celebrity's star persona is one of the more disturbing and depressing characteristics of our society; when the critics and the public unite and honor the star for a limp achievement like 'About Schmidt', it's like a giant red flag for why our culture needs change; it's something that's almost never welcomed or accepted or even easy to admit.

Nicholson was undoubtedly one of our finest actors and gave performances in the early to mid-seventies (Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail, Chinatown) that rank along side the best work of artists like Chaplin, Olivier, and Brando. Even when his acting was mediocre and the films were less than perfect (The Fortune, The Last Tycoon, Goin' South, The Missouri Breaks) he showed -and continues to show- an impressive list of directors and films that help define his great talent. But somewhere after he won his second Academy Award (for Terms of Endearment ironically) he became 'Jack'. Even with a weak Brooklyn accent (Prizzi's Honor) or a hobo's garb (Ironweed) or white pancake make-up (Batman) or turning in an absolutely hideous performance that proves he's weak as a character actor (Mars Attacks), he's always 'Jack'. He still has an eye for strong directors and projects that make him look good -it's no surprise he's in an upcoming Adam Sandler comedy (!)- but he's always 'Jack'. It was a wave that rose to a crescendo with his work in As Good As It Gets and climaxed when Madonna ripped open the Golden Globe envelope and announced the winner of the Best Actor in a Drama: she just simply smirked, looked out into the audience, and said "Jack." It didn't matter that he strolled through that role on star charisma alone, oh no, he won his third Oscar and had the entire Hollywood community and a bandwagon of critics at his feet. And now it's happening again with About Schmidt.


Just for the record, Gene Hackman's work is by far more consistantly superb (and he doesn't appear stoned out of his mind at every awards show), Nick Nolte -prior to the ecstacy bust- keeps getting better, Pacino may have his eye-rolling moments but he still retains a small flicker of greatness; but most importantly, they're all better character actors! And there are far more interesting young actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, maybe Ed Norton or Jude Law, Billy Bob Thorton, or even Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci. (I gave up long ago on DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman or they would be mentioned somewhere around here.)

The film itself is a grueling and grisly disappointment chock full of stereotypes (Warren's future son-in-law, Kathy Bates's character's family, etc.)and painfully labored comic set pieces: Warren's reaction to painkillers is an old cheap gag used in everything from Best Friends with Goldie Hawn to a Seinfeld episode with Julia Louise Dreyfus and his struggle on a waterbed is an even older, cheaper gag used in every trashy sitcom like Love American Style or Three's Company. The film's sledgehammer sublety is at its worst when the camera slowly moves into the end of a vacuum cleaner after Warren's discovers his wife on the floor (get it?) and when he makes his first stop in a small town, the film's message is displayed like a headline as the title of the movie showing at the local theater: Kill to Live. I didn't find About Schmidt to be as dull and slow moving like other viewers but it's an obvious piece of filmmaking and a perfect representation of what would have happened if Brett Ratner had directed Wild Strawberries. For the record, a man's self discovery and struggle with spiritual emptiness and regret caused from living the hollow corporate lifestyle was handled with much more insight, pathos, and humanity in 13 Conversations About One Thing with Alan Arkin, who gave a superb performance that's hardly even been acknowledged by any critics circle!

Warren's final moment is talked about as if Nicholson had achieved some sort of extraordinarily new height in the art of acting when actually he pulls the old actor's trick that's been used for applause and awards for years: he cries for us. Kathy Bates's inspiring bravado in her nude scene is the only sign of life in this Republican 'A Trip to Bountiful'.

Alexander Payne showed great film editing rhythyms, a tremendous sense of humor, and a wonderful observational style with Citizen Ruth and Election but his smug direction lacks the strong humanity and magic touch of Robert Altman (Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye), Paul Mazursky (Harry & Tonto, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Enemies, A Love Story), Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Harold & Maude, Shampoo), Johnathan Demme (Melvin & Howard, Handle with Care, Something Wild) and Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, King of Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry). Yet About Schmidt has bewitched almost the whole east and west coast critical community. This one-man's-journey-to-find-himself is a classist, almost condescending view of middle America - a place I'm sure no New York film critic has ever seen; a narrow minded generalization I take full pride in writing- that fails as both a satiric social commentary and an insightful character study. As for Nicholson, he's in and out of character in almost every other scene and his mugging is shameless. (When he doesn't play towards the camera he's fine but when he does he's like a hammy theater actor who doesn't know when to quit.)

This film may be the critics darling at the moment and is already considered a modern classic by some but maybe one day its cracks will be more visible to those who are able to step back and take an objective view of 'Jack'.


02-11-2003, 07:17 PM
We got a film buff in the house

dave durbin
02-11-2003, 07:31 PM

oscar jubis
02-13-2003, 02:19 PM
Originally posted by Johann
We got a film buff in the house
Even better Johann, we got an 'agent provocateur' willing to tick people off(guy just ripped one of your faves) and generate posts with stronger opinions than I could muster and a passion for 70s Hwood. Welcome dave durbin, but don't dis ma Queen, y'hear! (Latifah)

dave durbin
02-13-2003, 02:34 PM
I hear. Will do and thanks for the welcome!

brian martin
02-13-2003, 05:09 PM
Hi Dave,

Thanks for your post on About Schmidt. My friend and I, when we saw it, thought it was horrible, but since have feared we are the only ones with this opinion.

I wanted to walk out - it seemed we were amongst an audience of circus freaks: all the hooting and laughter. They thought it was a great comedy.

Why hasn't the film Lovely & Amazing been mentioned for the Oscars? That was a far better film than About Schmidt.

dave durbin
02-13-2003, 10:29 PM
Thanks for responding. I know the feeling, by the way. The crowd I saw the film with chuckled occasionally at the movie but my friend and I sat there in bewilderment. Granted, I enjoyed the opening scenes and really found some great things in the retirement party sequence but then it just sort of went downhill from there. I left the theater feeling a bit betrayed after having sat through it and I never thought the movie's popularity would have snowballed the way it has. Go figure.

Lovely and Amazing was very good by the way and I loved the scene where the girl tells Dermot Mulroney to critique her body. I don't think I've seen a scene like that in a movie before -it was so honest. He was fantastic, for the record. As far as the Oscars go, check the threads under Far from Heaven. Jump in.

Chris Knipp
02-17-2003, 01:42 PM
I agree with those who find this movie totally unappealing, exceptionally overrated, and think Dave Durban's very smart review and description of what's happening with Jack Nicolson is right on target. Sure, the director is an original and worth watching, but so is Shyamalan, and that doesn't mean they're to be relied upon to turn out imperishable masterpieces. In this case the movie seems to appeal and push buttons for two demographic groups. The young find it a hilarious spoof and chortle at the insensitivity to New Agers and aging retired people and Middle Westerners, etc.; the old (unbelievably) find it a sensitive portrayal of the problems of the spouse-deprived no longer working male, adrift in his own twilight years -- with a few chuckles, to be sure.

This is one of those rare movies when you may feel like the rest of the audience is from another planet, and I felt quite alienated from both groups, unable to see anything to sympathize with but also alienated by the negativity and cruelty of the movie. The audience at the matinee I attended was predominantly older, and they were intent and worshipful, and only laughed out loud once or twice. Somehow Jack anchors both the young mocking and old sympathizing groups, satisfying both by really just walking through the role with his body and face doing the work of letting both groups identify or mock, as they choose.

Maybe this is why the movie has become so overrated: it pushes buttons for two completely separate groups with completely different reactions to the movie, and they all think Jack does a great job being Schmidt -- or just being Jack, as the case may be; and that certainly cuts both ways. For some he's just Jack; for others, who see a different movie, he's submerged in this Schmidt slob, whom they pity or sympathize with.

The trouble with the idea that Jack is submerged in Schmidt is that there is no Schmidt: the man's a cypher. The trouble with his being just Jack is that the character wasn't written for Jack, or if he was, it was a huge miscasting idea. And because the role really isn't a Jack Nicolson role, people think Jack's doing a great job of acting just being in it. But there's a difference between stretching and just being miscast.

03-01-2003, 12:34 AM
I was just relieved to finally see a movie with Jack Nicholson in which I like him as an actor. I had been loathed to see this movie, thinking perhaps, I'd have to sit through another of his weird characters. But no, this timely movie really hit home with the aging theme and Jack's reserved acting really made his performance stand out for me. I loved the more naturalistic, less polished style of cinematgraphy in this movie. The Dairy Queen scene was fabulous in its realism - I'm assuming that the counter help were really workers at the Dairy Queen.

Jack was fresh in this movie with good facial expression instead of wacko dialogue. This movie has a lot going for it in this age of aging baby-boomers and the reality is at hand that this movie starts to face something that a majority of television America is now facing. There is something to learn from this movie. I can see why Jack was nominated for an Best Actor Oscar, it wasn't just because of his cult status, it was because he did something worthy.

Chris Knipp
03-01-2003, 12:52 AM
To many of us, this is just the same old Jack, 'swinishly lolling' through every scene (in Anthony Lane's phrase). Quite amazing how people see what they want to see in this unpleasant movie. Mind you, Nicholson is an important Hollywood actor who's done wonderful work.

03-01-2003, 06:12 PM
Most movies that I've seen Jack in "As Good As It Gets (1997)," "Mars Attacks! (1996)," "Wolf (1994)," " Few Good Men, A (1992) ," "Batman (1989) ," "Witches of Eastwick, The (1987)," "Prizzi's Honor (1985), ""Shining, The (1980) ," Jack has played eccentric men who are a bit off, with some maniacal bent - such parts are easier to play because they do not require as much acting or performance - the behavior and exaggerated script just outshines the star. However, in "About Schmidt," Jack plays an ordinary man, towards the end of his life, a fragile, lonely man - with more facial expression and silent acting, Jack demonstrated in this movie a different demeanor, a quiet, not cocky person. I avoided seeing "About Schimdt" thinking that I'd see another dorky Jack, in a role I couldn't stand, but instead I found a Jack performing a human role, a sincere man with faults and doubts. It was an Oscar nominee performance! It's so easy for people to make statements but I don't read anything into them that offers much support.

oscar jubis
03-01-2003, 06:59 PM
Performance appreciation is so subjective I'll sit this one out. Especially because I don't feel as strongly, either way, as other members posting here. I do remember thinking during the speech-at-the-wedding scene that Nicholson was on. Anyway, looking back, has anybody had this kind of run:


Chris Knipp
03-02-2003, 02:39 PM
Indeed. Strong personality, strong actor. Perhaps The Shining (1980) was a turning point toward self-parody. It's been up an down since, with great roles and mediocre ones, selfless performances and self-serviing ones.

Perfume V
03-03-2003, 10:32 AM
Chris - I'm interested to know where you're getting this "negativity and cruelty" in the movie. Whereas Warren Schmidt didn't exactly get an easy time, I never got the feeling that the movie was just building him up to tip him over. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Chris Knipp
03-03-2003, 01:37 PM
Perfume V: About Schmidt is one of those litmus tests in which everyone sees the movie they choose to see, and the audience I viewed it with walked out with a totally different impression than mine. As Dave Durbin has said, it's surprising how the popularity of this movie has "snowballed." I would never have expected that, and I can't understand it. The presence of Jack Nicholson must be the central factor. He has a wide following. The movie is not negative and cruel exclusively toward Schmidt. He is a nonentity and all his efforts to become something more after his retirement and his wife's death are ridiculous and futile, but the movie gives him the sympathy of implied interest by its focusing on him throughout. You may ask yourself at the end what evidence the movie has offered that Schmidt has made his life worthwhile, but it is the secondary characters who are dealt with most cruelly. Each one is successfully made repulsive and foolish. Anderson Payne is a severe critic of Middle America in this movie. I can't see the warmth and humanity that others find here. But do not expect me to convince you, because you saw a different movie. By perusing published reviews of critics, however, I have found that I am not alone in what I see there. My review on IMDb: http://us.imdb.com/CommentsShow?0257360-18

Perfume V
03-05-2003, 09:04 AM
I think you're seeing a political aspect to the movie which I'm not convinced by. The staple of all comedy - even something as genial and inoffensive as My Big Fat Greek Wedding - is exaggeration and caricature, and yeah, the characters frequently do end up looking "repulsive and foolish". But to assume that this necessarily means Payne is making a point about the idiocy of all middle-Americans doesn't make much sense. It's like saying Fawlty Towers is John Cleese's attack on residents of Torquay, or Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons is a vessel for the writers' distrust of well-educated childrens' entertainers. Just because the movie is set in a particular place doesn't mean it is intended to be representative of that place, just as David Lynch had to point out to critics of Blue Velvet that just because Dorothy was a woman doesn't mean she was an avatar of every woman.

Chris Knipp
03-05-2003, 02:05 PM
I begin to feel like I've said about as much as I can about this demoralizing film. Not its director's best work, it will be remembered more for the performance of the powerful Jack Nicholson than for its confused plot and mean social (not political) portraiture: the whole interest is in deciding if Jack has sunk the movie or saved it. I am sure that this overrated movie has had such a long ride entirely through the odd contrast between Nicholson and his role. Rarely has miscasting generated such extraordinary interest: it is a tribute to Nicholson's sheer voltage as an actor. As I said in my own review, Payne Anderson has now moved away from his native Nebraska. His motives are mixed in About Schmidt: he trashes while he sentimentalizes. If he is cruel, sometimes perhaps it is to be kind, but the bad taste lingers on beyond the dubious sentimentality. Comedy can be gentle or it can be cruel. It is important to note the tone of it. Is My Big Fat Greek Wedding "genial and inoffensive"? Not everyone finds it that way. But it certainly is positive.

For more about the tone and the director's attitude toward his milieu, I'll allow some reviewers to speak for me (these can all be found on www.mrqe.com):

Peter Keogh, Boston Phoenix:
"Of course, as in all of this director’s work, that irony is still pretty broad. Isn’t it enough to give Randall a mullet — must he have prematurely thinning hair and a Fu Manchu moustache and sell waterbeds, too? The women characters verge on misogynistic stereotype, as they might in any film that includes in its cast both Hope Davis and Kathy Bates. In the original Louis Begley novel, Schmidt was an urbane, white-shoe New York City lawyer whose intelligence and self-awareness flattered the reader’s sympathy. Here he’s is a schmuck…"

Charles Taylor, Salon:
For all the combinations of tone and style that movies have indulged in, I can't think of one that has attempted smug poignancy (or is it poignant smugness?). That's the tone of "About Schmidt…Like far too much contemporary American movie comedy, "About Schmidt" is all about flattering the audience. A drab visual insult, James Glennon's cinematography is about reducing the Midwest to strip malls and ugly downtowns, overbright superstores and anonymous tracts of suburbs. Here, we are being told, is the land of dullness and convention and routine, where everything has a deadening sameness. Even before you see them, you anticipate the twin La-Z-Boy loungers in the TV room, the floral-pattern bedroom wallpaper, the Sears family portrait on a young executive's desk, the heavy mahogany paneling in the town's "classy" restaurant.

Peter Rainier, New York:
Payne grew up in Nebraska, but on the basis of his films, it would be incorrect to say he feels great affection for his roots; he wants us to know he’s not a rube like the people he puts on display. A director like Jonathan Demme, in Melvin and Howard, could celebrate small-time rural American malcontents and dreamers without feeling the need to cartoonize them. It’s the difference between artistry and knowingness. About Schmidt doesn’t bring us deeply into the lives of its people because it’s too busy trying to feel superior to them.

03-22-2003, 11:34 AM
I didn't feel that the characters in About Schmidt were "cartoonized". People like that EXIST. I've met some up here in Alberta-"redneck country" as we're called..
Mullets (which are sickening) are abundant in the MILLIONS. That's a scarier fact than anything on "fear factor". Characters like Kathy Bates' are all-too common in North America. Nothing in About Schmidt to me was a parody, a spin, a pun, or insult to these types of people. I could go so far as to say Payne gave them the ultimate compliment: an opportunity to see themselves as they REALLY are. The question is will they continue to be abhorrently unappealing? my guess is yes.

Chris Knipp
05-11-2018, 09:57 PM
Here is that original IMDb User review of mine (also here (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=19)):

Jack's back.

`About Schmidt' reminds one why `American Beauty' seemed uplifting: it made us see an ordinary man's boring life as something he could toy with and perhaps escape from. Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicolson) makes feeble efforts to escape – and once he sets sail in the Winnebago, he can always jump into it and drive off again. But he has no inner wildness to discover. Inside he has perhaps wellsprings of fear, sadness, and rage, but he's neither willing nor able to express them. To call Schmidt's fate in the movie an `existential crisis,' as some critics have done, is a bit of a stretch.

`American Beauty' was Kevin Spacey's finest hour, if not his most challenging role. Opinions vary on Jack Nicolson's performance in `About Schmidt.' Is this the work of a great actor, or the wreck of one, or was he always a great obnoxious scene-stealing ham who's lucked into some terrific roles -- but here simply winks at the audience from behind the befuddled Babbitt he is playing? In `About Schmidt,' Nicolson surely has moments in which each of these facets appears: we see a great actor, and a burnt out one; a ham, and a celebrity hiding in a role that would be beneath him if it didn't rise to such sublimely nerve-wracking and embarrassing levels of tragicomedy. For the most part the hero of Alexander Payne's movie is simply a thinly disguised but magisterially reposeful Jack Nicolson who in scene after scene holds back or, as A. Lane memorably writes, `swinishly lolls.'

And this is what the role calls for. One can debate the performance, but it's pretty clear that the cinematic Schmidt is largely a cipher. Inside every Schmidt, it appears, there is a Jack Nicolson violently gesturing to be let out -- but here exercising moments of cunning repression. For an actor as flamboyant as Nicolson to play with great restraint is in itself a form of flamboyance.

Schmidt doesn't wish to face anything, and he doesn't. He tries to escape from almost every moment that calls for active presence. First it's by slipping off for a drink at a bar when his retirement party is going on. Then it's by jumping into the Winnebago when living alone gets rocky. He has shown himself pathetically unable to cope after his wife dies. He has turned against her and his best friend for a short flirtation between them long ago. And he has run away from it all. But in the end he only escapes into drugs (the Percodan Kathy Bates' character gives him for his twisted neck) and fantasies of a paternal relationship with a small African boy he buys foster care for. This is how he buys off his `existential crisis': he sends off monthly checks to Africa for $22. You could better call this not `existential crisis' but middle class white guilt. The voiceovers of Schmidt's letters to the boy are the only semblance of a sensibility that the movie offers, and its only resolution is validation of this boy's existence via a letter from a nun in the final scene. There is much sadness in this, but no enlightenment.

`About Schmidt' indeed is a rather distressing (but nonetheless surefooted) example of what could be called Todd Solandz lite, which was found much more amusingly displayed in `Pumpkin' and `The Good Girl' earlier this year. This time the level of caricature is kept low enough and pervasive enough to be hardly ever funny. The movie offers a quarter of an hour of genuine amusement when Schmidt arrives at his daughter's future mother-in-law's house. Kathy Bates provides some relief from the emptiness of Schmidt's respectable, actuarial existence (he was in insurance in the director's own native Omaha). She swears; she yells at her ex. Her house has a dated hippy charm and the way her New Age sexuality threatens Schmidt is blissful because she also threatens for a moment to take over the screen with her warm presence. The bad taste of the décor is enormously welcome here after the Fifties colonial neutrality of Schmidt's residence; the dinner featuring the garrulous ex, rude Roberta, and airhead son Randall is a hoot. As Randall the handsome but ill fated Dermot Mulroney (he once seemed destined to become a matinee idol) comes supplied with a balding pate, a ridiculous set of whiskers, a long ponytail, and a job selling waterbeds – a pretty heavy load for an actor who once squired Julia Roberts. `About Schmidt' quickly descends into mild slapstick with Schmidt's injury in the waterbed and doped-out behavior on Percodan. His speech at the wedding dinner teases us with expectations of a hostile outburst, but he ends by saying only the most conventional things.

This movie will get more attention than `Pumpkin' or `The Good Girl' because of Jack Nicolson's presence: Solandz lite will inch closer to mainstream. And audiences will get a few big laughs -- Jack can create heavy irony with just a raised eyebrow -- but they will not get many. This is the saddest movie of the year, and the sadness isn't just from views of joyless marriage, helpless retirement, and death, but from a steady satiric vision of Middle America that is restrained yet deeply cruel. Anderson Payne has delivered a heavy wallop to the rebel in us. He himself, it is said, has moved away from Omaha and gone to live in Hollywood.

05-27-2018, 05:06 PM
Good thread on About Schmidt.
I loved the movie, and Chris you reviewed it spot-on.

Chris Knipp
05-27-2018, 05:31 PM
Thanks, fifteen years later!

oscar jubis
05-21-2020, 07:52 AM
It's been a decade since Jack Nicholson retired. I don't think he is ever coming back. Never. Not after saying "No" to a juicy, fun role that seems designed for him: Toni Erdmann's father in the American remake of that masterful German film. I have not seen any announcement about who will play the role. Kristen Wiig will play the titular protagonist.
Gene Hackman retired "young" too. Almost 20 years ago...Is Robert Redford finally retired?

Chris Knipp
05-21-2020, 08:59 AM
Apparently Jack did not say no to TONI ERDMANN but dropped out of it. Bill Murray would be a good choice. https://thefilmstage.com/jack-nicholson-drops-out-of-toni-erdmann-remake-as-it-finds-a-director/