About Schmidt

In “About Schmidt,” we finally see the mythical figure we have long suspected existed but never had proof of: Jack Nicholson as an Old Man.

After years (decades?) of cavorting with far-younger women, both on screen and off, Nicholson is given a wife his own age here.

He further skews his wolfish bad-boy image by appearing completely disheveled in some scenes, unflatteringly naked in another, and meekly non-confrontational throughout. Warren Schmidt, his character, suffers fools gladly — something I suspect Nicholson never does.

Going against audience expectations is not what makes “About Schmidt” such a thoroughly delightful film, but it is indicative of the filmmakers’ mischievous attitudes. The director is Alexander Payne; he co-wrote the script with Jim Taylor, and the two of them also gave us “Election,” that thrillingly subversive (and funny) 1999 film that helped a nation forgive Matthew Broderick for “Inspector Gadget.”

“About Schmidt” (only tangentially related to the Louis Begley novel of that name) gives us honest emotion when we least expect it, makes fun of characters who turn out to be legitimately affecting, and uses throw-away jokes to establish real themes. It is smart, but not in a highbrow way; if the opportunity arises for a laugh at the expense of a naked Kathy Bates, they will zealously pursue it.

Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a recently retired Omaha insurance man who, with no job to go to, has no idea what to do. His wife, Helen (June Squibb), runs the house and has no use for her jobless husband. Like many older couples, they hardly know each other anymore. (“Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” Warren asks us.)

With nothing else to do, Warren responds to one of those charity TV commercials and starts sponsoring a poor Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, going the extra mile and writing him letters. These are some of the film’s comedic highlights; Warren uses the letters as a form of therapy. I would like to see the look on Ndugu’s face when someone translates them for him and he learns that Helen never lets Warren urinate from a standing position.

Then Helen dies, and Warren is thrown into true upheavel. His daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), lives in Denver and is about to marry a loser named Randall (Dermot Mulroney). She doesn’t want her dad hanging around getting underfoot any more than necessary, though she’s glad to let him pay for the wedding.

Warren Schmidt is a man accustomed to doing what he’s told, an avoider of wave-making in the purest sense — but darned if Nicholson doesn’t make him, of all things, lovable, noble and decent. He’s told at his retirement dinner that the true mark of a man’s greatness is not how much insurance he sold, but how many lives he touched. Now, in his golden years, Schmidt is uncertain whether he’s actually done any good.

Nicholson’s performance through all of this is among his finest work of the past 20 years. He is completely immersed in Warren Schmidt, doggedly dealing with — and playing straight-man to — his shrewish daughter, Randall’s outrageous mother (Kathy Bates), and all manner of other nuisances with the perseverance of a saint. The more patient he is, the funnier the movie becomes.

Bates is marvelous as Randall’s mother, bringing unexpected life into the film’s third act. I was also tickled by Harry Groener (the evil mayor on TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) as a nerdy Wisconsinite who uses nautical terms in discussing his mobile home.

The sharp comedy that occupies most of the film melts into a sentimental — but not syrupy — conclusion that is one of my favorite movie endings of the year. Beneath the dark sardonicism and aloofness of “About Schmidt” beats a beautiful, redemptive heart.

A (2 hrs., 5 min.; R, scattered harsh profanity, brief non-sexual nudity of the Kathy Bates and Jack Nicholson variety.)