Hollywood loves him and his performance is so exquisite!

Preview by Jack Foley

JACK'S back! Nicholson has done it again. Roll out the red carpet and hand him the Oscar now! That's how good people are rating his latest performance (although Daniel Day Lewis might have something to say about that, given his scene-stealing turn in Gangs of New York!).

From the makers of the superb indie flick, Election (starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) comes About Schmidt, the story of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a 67-year-old insurance actuary who, upon retirement, reassesses his life and starts to wonder whether his job, marriage, and family life were ever what he had hoped for.

Warren's daughter (Hope Davis) barely speaks to him and is set to marry a man (Dermot Mulroney) he disapproves of and things get worse when his wife dies suddenly, prompting him to travel across country to stop the marriage and find meaning in his own life.

About Schmidt is the type of film which has been generating strong word of mouth since it debuted at Cannes in the summer. Critics then were hailing Nicholson's performance as one of the best of his career (no mean feat), referring to it as his 'least vain' ever.

The film has subsequently been named by the Los Angeles Film Critics as their film of the year (with Nicholson sharing best actor spoils with Day Lewis), while it has notched a further five nominations in the Golden Globe nominations, announced recently.

Not bad for a movie which took almost half a decade to put together. About Schmidt began life in the early Nineties, when writer-director, Alexander Payne, emerged from film school, determined to set the world on fire. An early draft of the film, entitled The Coward, was laughed away by Universal, prompting him to go away and make something 'more commercial' - the abortion comedy, Citizen Ruth.

Ruth scored highly at the Sundance Film Festival and prompted critics to sit up and take notice of Payne, so when the political satire, Election, opened in 1999 to almost universal acclaim, insiders decided to take another look at Schmidt.

Payne, however, had tweeked the screenplay quite considerably, having discovered Louis Begley's two dark comics, About Schmidt and Schmidt Delivered, and collaborating with fellow writer, Jim Taylor, to lift narrative devices from the comics and graft them on to his old script.

The ensuing screenplay attracted the interest of Nicholson and the rest, as they say, is history. Fellow cast members Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Baker followed soon after.

Payne is justifiably proud of the picture which has resulted and holds Nicholson in the highest esteem. When asked by Entertainment Weekly in their Fall preview (August 2002 edition), he calmly predicted: "Oh! I'd be very surprised if he weren't nominated... I hate hyping anything, but he seems like a shoo-in because Hollywood loves him and his performance is so exquisite!"

With that in mind, could it be time to hand over the keys of the Academy to the old Joker one more time?

What the US critics thought…

Critics in America were virtually lining up to heap praise on About Schmidt, with Entertainment Weekly leading the way by awarding the film an A. Its critic wrote that the film is 'part comedy, part tragedy, part satire, mostly masterpiece', while Film Journal International wrote that '[it's] largely about Jack Nicholson, in a comic showcase his fans won't want to miss'.

The New York Post awarded it three out of four and wrote that Nicholson 'is so absolutely riveting that you can forgive the bumps in this road movie', while Hollywood Reporter referred to it as 'blisteringly funny and equally moving'.

The New York Times wrote that 'what makes this exquisitely observed slice of American screen realism transcend itself is finally its moral sensibility', while Rolling Stone confidently predicted that it 'may well win Nicholson his fourth Oscar'. It awarded the film a maximum four out of four.

USA Today awarded it three and a half out of four and described it as 'a deliberately slow-paced but insightfully moving portrait of a life's third act', while Village Voice wrote that it was 'an impressively bleak comedy with intimations of social satire'.

Of a more mixed nature was TV Guide, which felt that 'the writing is sharp and often blithely cynical, although not above using a shooting star to put a lump in the throat', while Reel.com wrote that 'there's nothing especially tragic and affecting here, just a bland character coping with some amusing family politics'.

The bad words were few and far between, however, with the praise being continued by Variety, which wrote that 'Nicholson has provided an open window into this man, one like so many in that he had youthful ambitions to accomplish more than he actually did'.

CNN felt that About Schmidt was 'undoubtedly one of the finest films of the year', before adding: "If you're not deeply touched by this movie, check your pulse."

And, finally, the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Perfectly pitched between comedy and tragedy, hope and despair, About Schmidt instead comes far closer than many movies to expressing the way many of us live - someplace between consuming self-absorption and insistently demanding otherness."

Indielondon will deliver its verdict on the film in January.

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