If you didn’t see About Schmidt in the theater, chances are you still heard two things about it: Jack Nicholson doesn’t raise his eyebrows, and Kathy Bates does drop her bathrobe. Yet Nicholson’s admirably modest performance and Bates’ admirably immodest hot-tub scene are far from the only subtle and/or revealing elements of director Alexander Payne’s dramedy. The story moves slowly, as does its protagonist, retired Midwestern insurance executive Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), but it ultimately yields an enormous emotional payoff.
After his wife’s sudden death, Schmidt sets out in a Winnebago for his daughter’s wedding in Denver. Along the way, he gets looped on expired Percodan, discovers his childhood home has been replaced by a tire store, and endures mother-of-the-groom Bates’ uncensored anecdotes about her hysterectomy. Nicholson masterfully creates not just a singular character study but a portrait of an entire generation of prefeminist American men whose placid surfaces cover a bubbling cauldron of profound feelings. He might not have won an Oscar for this one, but Nicholson — and Schmidt — are as good as it gets.