Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney
By now you’ve no doubt heard that Jack Nicholson is amazing in Alexander Payne’s latest — and greatest — film, About Schmidt. You’ve probably also heard that he’s amazing because of how underwhelmingly he plays the role of Warren Schmidt, how he turns off all of his star wattage (un-Jacks, so to speak) and allows us to see Schmidt for what he is: an old man, a tired one — just retired, married 42 years to the same woman, living out the remainder of a mundane Nebraskan life — and a lonely soul who has come to believe that his life on this earth has made no difference whatsoever.
Well, the reports and reviews are true, Nicholson is absolutely amazing in the role, deserving of all current accolades coming his way. So too, though, is the film itself, which seems to be getting overshadowed by Nicholson’s career-defining performance. True, About Schmidt would not work without Jack Nicholson as its anchor, but it is also important to give credit to co-writer/director Alexander Payne, who is quickly proving himself to be one of the sharpest directorial voices working in film today. Unlike, As Good as it Gets, where Nicholson was great and the film just barely average, About Schmidt is a truly great film, only enhanced (though to the nth degree) by Nicholson’s riveting performance.
As the film opens, Warren Schmidt sits at his desk in his near empty office, turned in his chair to face the clock as it counts down the final 30 seconds of his career in the insurance industry. Today, at 65, he officially retires from Woodman, where he served as an actuary for many, many years. The clock strikes five and Warren Schmidt goes home.
Omaha, Nebraska has got to be at least a little bit less dreary than director Payne frequently paints it (it came off no better in Election), but it nonetheless looks like quite the depressing American town. Schmidt returns home to his wife — one who is actually a bit older than him in real life, which comes as a reality checking shock to those of us who still see Jack the Playboy whenever he pops up on screen or at Lakers games. You feel the reality of Schmidt’s age — and the weight of his life — through her presence. At this point in time (having been married 42 years), it is undoubtedly a marriage of comfort, without a whole lot of love. What love there is in Schmidt seems to go out entirely to his daughter, Jeanie (Hope Davis), who currently lives in Denver.
Schmidt has no idea what to do with his life, now that he’s out of the insurance game. Against his frugal nature, he gives in and buys a Winnebago, that he and his wife might travel around the country and have “adventures.” To Schmidt, this seems about as appealing as anything else he’s got going in his life. Which is to say, not at all. In a moment that straddles humor and pathos (as the best comedies tend to do), Schmidt stumbles upon an infomercial about sponsoring poor and needy children in third world countries. He decides, for $22 a month, to try and make a difference in the world. When the information comes in the mail about his “foster son,” Ndugu Umo, the company requests that he write a letter to the child he is sponsoring, telling a bit about himself to the six-year-old. Thus begins the film’s longest running — and most frequently humorous — joke, as Schmidt begins pouring his heart out to little Ndugu in confessional, ranting letters.
He goes out to mail his letter and his $22 check, with his wife warning him not to “dilly-dally.” Those are the last words he ever hears from her. When he returns home — having rebelled in his own quiet way by stopping off at Dairy Queen for a Blizzard — he finds her dead of a sudden blood clot in the brain.
Now what does he do? How can he take care of himself? “Dear Ndugu…”
After a period of grieving, he finally decides that in order to give his life meaning, he needs to immediately drive down to Denver and attempt to stop his only daughter from marrying Randall, a mattress salesman (Dermot Mulroney) whom he considers “not even in her league.” He is convinced that if he can stop Jeannie from making this mistake, his life will have been of some purpose, he will have made use of his time on Earth. So he hops in the ol’ Winnebago and sets off on a road trip (in an almost eerie bookend to his cross-country adventures on the road in Easy Rider more than 30 years ago).
Along the way, Schmidt — at the advice of Jeannie, who does not want him to come to Denver so far in advance of the wedding — decides to see some old sights: the house where he was born, his old alma mater (U of Kansas), and various other nostalgic places. Nothing makes him feel like he wants to, in fact, with each stop, he seems to be more lost than ever. When he does, at last, arrive in Denver, he finds himself staying with Jeannie’s soon to be in-laws (which is where Kathy Bates shows up in the movie and just about knocks her role out of the ballpark; yes, she does have a nude scene, and no, it is not distasteful or there for shock value). And as things continue to spiral out of his control, away from his own intentions and desires, Warren Schmidt struggles to hold to some shred of dignity and hopefully, by doing so, gain some purpose in his life.
About Schmidt is not a feel-good movie. It stays in a darkly depressing place — enforced by dreary skies and even drearier landscapes — and forces you to view the world through the eyes of a real, if sad, man. Luckily for the viewer, Payne is also an incredibly gifted satirist (he captures the wedding here with as much precise satirical detail as he captured the school assembly in one of the best scenes from Election) and we are let off the hook, so to speak, with a good deal of humor. However, the humor — so much of it based in sadness or awkward situations — is never fully able to cover up the essential depressing nature of Schmidt’s struggle towards some sort of redemption, nor does it seem intended to. Rather, it serves as a counterpoint of sorts, most likely keeping us from crying throughout a film which, without the moments of “hilarity,” would be one of the most depressing pictures I’ve seen in a long, long while. Kudos to Nicholson (who is all but assured an Oscar nomination for his work), Bates, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor. About Schmidt is one of the best movies of the year.