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By James Arnold

Jack: In the Nick of Time





ABOUT SCHMIDT (A-3, R): Just when you’re on the edge of movie despair, along comes a miracle like About Schmidt. It’s mostly genial, at times uproarious, comic realism about being vaguely disappointed about the way life has turned out. Then when Warren Schmidt seems headed for despair, the film takes a step toward healing and hope.

The hero is played by Jack Nicholson in one of the signature roles of a huge career. He’s a mild-mannered Omaha insurance actuary, recently retired and in the doldrums.

Schmidt quickly discovers he’s no longer welcome at work. His controlling wife of 42 years dies. And he dislikes the ponytailed Denver waterbed salesman their only child plans to marry.

We like Schmidt because he’s aware of the bad stuff happening to him but too gentle to fight back in kind. He’s moved by late-night TV ads about “adopting” a starving African orphan and even writes letters to the boy. The voiceovers of those letters, telling the distant child of Schmidt’s ups and downs, provide the film’s ingenious narrative and emotional spine.

As Warren Schmidt goes through life-changing rituals, everyone says the nice and expected words, shakes hands, hugs or gives awkward speeches and toasts. But deeper realities are unplumbed and unspoken.

Schmidt becomes infuriated as he discovers things about his deceased wife. He takes off alone, in a huge Winnebago his wife had insisted they buy. On the road, he soon comes to realize his own shortcomings. Perched atop his parked RV, looking at the stars, he forgives his wife and asks her forgiveness as well.

Then he drives to Denver to try one last time to save his daughter (Hope Davis), but finally understands it’s too late. Schmidt attends and blesses the wedding that is both hilarious and touching. He drives home crushed, almost Willie Loman-like, thinking his life’s a failure. But he earns a small redemption.

Nicholson simply inhabits Schmidt. He soars beyond the sharp, perceptive script, freely adapted by gifted Omaha-based writer-director Alexander Payne (Election) from a novel by Louis Begley. Comedy humanely lightens the senior-citizen glumness, especially in Denver, where Schmidt struggles to cope with the tacky but good-hearted bridegroom (Dermot Mulroney) and his flirtatious divorceé mom (Kathy Bates). It’s simultaneously rollicking slapstick and clever social satire. Humanity to enjoy, moral purpose to savor; some nudity; recommended for mature audiences.


THE HOURS (O, PG-13): In 1925 Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was designed as an experiment in literary form, limiting the time to a single day and interweaving the thoughts and experiences of two strangers—a rich woman planning a party and a shell-shocked veteran who commits suicide. The method was more important than the meaning.

Now, after being metamorphosed in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and adapted into film—where voiceover and intercutting techniques are easy and commonplace—the emphasis is on the content. That (via Cunningham and screenwriter David Hare) is gloomy stuff, centering on Woolf’s own life problems, her creative angst, mental illness, bisexuality and suicidal urges, as reflected in the lives of two American women, one and two generations later.

In 1951 Los Angeles, Laura (Julianne Moore), a pregnant and depressed suburbanite, reads Woolf’s novel and ponders suicide even as she and her little boy struggle to bake a birthday cake for her husband. In 2001 New York, Clarissa (Meryl Streep), a literary editor, plans a party to honor the ex-lover she’s been helping for years, a writer who is dying of AIDS.

The third story follows Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman) in 1923 in England. She writes, broods and clashes with her caregiving husband about the various aspects of her illness.

The interwoven stories share obvious common elements: the single-day time frame, party preparation and deeply stressed protagonists. Homosexuality and suicide are factors in all three.

Like many Irish, I’m attracted to sadness. But here, with deep human issues and utterly no religious context, it’s like needles under the fingernails.

The artistry is superb, especially by the actresses portraying misery. (Kidman won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Woolf.) A major script flaw is that it requires audience background: You won’t walk in off the mall and have much of a clue, oddly, on Woolf’s specialty, which is what’s going on inside their heads. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) treats everyone with compassion. Philip Glass’s music unifies and adds emotional wallop. Obvious moral difficulties, but the taste is scrupulous; for mature viewers, with reservations.


CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (A-3, PG-13) is a rare comedy from director Steven Spielberg, based on the autobiography of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). Frank left his broken home at 16 and in the 1960s successfully passed himself off as an airline co-pilot, doctor and lawyer. He cashed over $4 million in fraudulent checks.

Spielberg works this material as a cops-and-robbers game between the brilliant and charming Abagnale and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the straight-arrow F.B.I. forgery nerd and pursuer who is often embarrassed but never gives up the chase.

“The more I got away with, the more of a game it became—a game I knew I would ultimately lose,” explains the real Frank Abagnale. Most of the fun is in the outrageousness of Frank’s capers. As a new student in high school, he pretends to be a substitute French teacher for a week. (His mother is French.) As a pilot, he gets free rides and 300 paychecks, but never flies a plane. As a doctor, he supervises, lets his staff do the work and leaves when it gets queasy. And he actually becomes a lawyer.

Frank inherits his risk-taking and people skills from his beloved but erratic father (played with charisma and nuance by Christopher Walken). The movie’s moral problems are probably less in the crime-sympathy area than in Frank’s manipulation of women. It’s amusing for a while but he pays the price. One cost is loneliness: In a persistent motif, he calls Hanratty every Christmas because he has no one else to talk to. Slick and amusing, but with moral ambiguities; 30 minutes too long.


BONHOEFFER: The new documentary focusing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Protestant pastor and theologian who was one of the heroes of the religious anti-Nazi resistance, began getting some exposure early this year. It was exhibited four nights in January in Park City by church groups during the week of the Sundance Festival, and is being shown in several major cities this spring before probable exposure on PBS.

It was financed by a group including the Franciscan Friars and Combined Collections. Produced by Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films (Bernardin, The Cardinal Suenens Story), the film is a powerful tribute to a man whom people of faith must never forget. He came to realize it was his personal mission to stay in Germany and speak out against a cruel, overwhelming tyranny and especially its persecution of the Jews.

The film uses archival footage, scores of family photos and images of key places, as well as commentary by friends, former students, relatives, historians and theologians. It establishes the context of the times and Bonhoeffer’s leadership role in convincing scholarly detail. There is also an emotional narrative about a man, influenced by his visits to America and especially by black churches, who understood the need for people of faith "to live completely in the world with its duties, problems, successes and failures."

The images of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany are still awesome and frightening. The excerpts from Nazi films still convey enormous power: Hundreds of thousands salute and roar homage to the Führer.

With others who plotted to assassinate Hitler, the gentle, courageous Bonhoeffer was executed during the last days of the war. God’s ministers, as Dietrich knew well, had to face death in those dark days because it was their time and their duty to stand up and be witnesses for Christ.

We won’t remember them now, except for a few lines in history books, without tough, beautifully made documentaries like this. More information about this film is available at


ST. PATRICK’S DAY VIDEOS: This contemporary list (most were released in the 1990s) includes good and/or challenging films made by or about the real Irish:

Frankie Starlight: A dwarf discovers astronomy, becomes a famous writer and finds true love.

The Commitments: Roddy Doyle’s story is about working-class kids in Dublin who organize a soul-music band.

Hear My Song: The search for a famous tenor is hilarious.

My Left Foot: This inspirational story focuses on Christy Brown, who has cerebral palsy, and his remarkable mother.

In the Name of the Father: An innocent father joins his falsely convicted son in a British prison.

Into the West: Two slum boys ride an enchanted white horse into rural Ireland.

The Playboys: A pretty unwed mom in a rural village takes her time choosing among suitors.

Widow’s Peak: An attractive newcomer joins a group of well-to-do widows in control of a 1920s village.

Raining Stones: A Belfast plumber is obsessed with buying his daughter an expensive First Communion dress.

The Secret of Roan Inish: A girl visiting her grandparents in Donegal is fascinated by tales of Selkies (seal women).

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