I wanted to like this movie. But I don't think the movie wanted me to like it, and being a good boy, I reacted as the movie wanted: I didn't like it.
First, there's the misanthropic point of view. I've read a lot of reviews claiming this movie is full of humanist heart, but I don't see it, nor do I see a movie making a point about the sad meaninglessness of life. What I see is a movie that looks down on its characters, thinks people are stupid, and oh, by the way, life sux, which ain't exactly Camus. For misanthropy to work in the movies, it needs to be either vicious or funny (or both), but this movie is something else: it's attaches its misanthropy to the most obvious heart-tugging crap. So it's not very funny, and it's not very mean, it just kinda sits there in a bad mood. There were people laughing in the theatre, but as far as I could tell, it was the laughter of people in their 60s saying "yep, that's what it's like to be us" as Schmidt suffered silently through everyone else's foibles. It's hard to believe director Alexander Payne is only 42, because this is the movie of an old man. Jean Renoir made "old man" movies when he was young, too ... he made Grand Illusion when he was 43 ... in Renoir's case, this meant he had the wisdom and artistic skill of a much older person, which he put to use illuminating our lives in the least condescending way imaginable. In Payne's case, it means he thinks young people are stupid, middle-aged people are stupid, older people are stupid ... the only people who aren't stupid are those of us in the audience who get to feel superior to the people on the screen.
The movie is also dreadfully predictable; if Adaptation. suffers from too much creative license, About Schmidt has the opposite problem. When Schmidt explains that he sits when he pees because his wife makes him, you know the first time he pees after she dies, he's going to do it standing up. When Schmidt despairs of making a difference in the world, you know the next thing he'll receive is a letter from the anonymous Tanzanian boy he's sponsoring, thanking him for his support (and when Nicholson begins to cry, it's assumed the audience is crying too, I suppose to demonstrate what great feeling we have for the downtrodden or something).
Nicholson's performance has gotten a lot of attention for being so un-Jack-like, and it's true, in many movies he relies too much on his schtick and it's not a bad strategy on paper to get him to turn that stuff off for a change. But we always know it's Jack Nicholson, and so the odd effect of Jack burying his usual charisma is that we paradoxically ALWAYS know he's acting. If we'd never seen him before, it would be one thing, but since he's JACK NICHOLSON, the audience has a history with him, we're too aware of what he's capable of doing, and when he doesn't do it, we're not absorbed in the drama, we're thinking "what an acting job!" He did the same thing thirty years ago in The King of Marvin Gardens, and it wasn't any better then, but those thirty years of history make the "I'm not acting" routine more problematic than it was in the earlier film.
As for the rest of the cast, the other Oscar nominee, Kathy Bates, is fine ... at least she's alive ... Hope Davis does what she can with a dreadfully-written part. Harry Groener, who also has a tiny part in Road to Perdition, shows up for a brief moment, to the delight of Buffy fans everywhere ("hey, it's the Mayor!"). Others, like Dermot Mulroney and Howard Hesseman, do what they can to give decency and humanity to characters that only exist to be the object of our contempt. Meanwhile, Payne relies on hoary old routines like old man Schmidt trying to lay down on a waterbed, and if that's the best he can do for laughs, he shouldn't bother. This film is a big disappointment. Five on a scale of ten.