We Brits are proud of our comedy. We may recognise that the Americans are great at team-brainstormed, quick-fire banter, but the British remain best at finding humour in the pathetic, in making comedy heroes out of total losers. Alan Partridge, David Brent, even Del Boy before he found that antique watch...
Which is why Alexander Payne is, as a comedy writer/director, distinctly un-Yank. He proved this with '99's acidic Election, which saw Matthew Broderick's pettily principled high school teacher implode over a student election. Now, to seal his rep as a US filmmaker who expertly draws humour out of torment, Payne brings us About Schmidt.
The tale of a retired insurance actuary who sets out in his motor home to try and convince his daughter not to marry her waterbed-flogging fiancé, it again chronicles the male condition while prodding at US society mores. But About Schmidt has something that Election lacked: a big gun. One of the biggest, in fact, as Oscar-magnet Jack Nicholson steps into the slippers of Warren Schmidt. He's saggy, morose and pitiful, a paragon of regret only prevented from sinking into despondency by a bitter determination to make something of his autumn years. It's a complex character, and only an actor of Nicholson's calibre could take someone as depressing as Warren and turn him into a hero of sorts. Or at least someone we're happy to be with for just about every scene.
It's not entirely a one-man show, though. Dermot Mulroney is superb as groom-to-be Randall, while Kathy Bates is disturbingly memorable as his mum (two words: hot tub). But whether he's flailing on a water bed with a bad back, sobbing into the arms of a trailer-park neighbour, or writing unintentionally hilarious letters to a little Tanzanian boy he's `adopted' ("Dear Ndugu, I hope you're sitting down because I have some bad news..."), ol' Jack never lets you forget that this is his gig. Even Payne would acknowledge that.