Jack Nicholson delivers a truly amazing performance in About Schmidt, Alexander Payne’s 2002 follow-up to his indie hit Election. Much like Robin Williams’ performance in One Hour Photo, Jack Nicholson plays a character who at once is recognizable as a real person; this isn’t Jack Nicholson shtick on the screen. About Schmidt is based very loosely on Louis Begley’s novel of the same name, with a smart screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor.
When we first meet Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) he is sitting in an office, boxes stacked behind him, watching the clock, waiting for it to hit 5:00 p.m. Schmidt is retiring from an insurance company where he has worked as an actuary. Schmidt is 66-years-old, and it shows on his weary face. He’s been replaced by a man half his age. This is a man who has lived his life by routine, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, and has accomplished nothing with his life. And has come to that realization.
Freshly retired, Schmidt finds himself with absolutely nothing at all to do, save for spending lots of time with his wife, Helen (June Squibb). She’s really the boss of the family, and has requested they purchase a huge RV to take trips in. Schmidt isn’t very excited about this.
The genius in Nicholson’s performance is not in what he says, but in what he doesn’t say; his body language and facial expressions speak volumes. When we look into Schmidt’s eyes, we can see his weariness, sadness and even sparks of anger. Schmidt is a man with no compass, and in his eyes we can see the regret of living a life of 66-years and not having accomplished anything.
One day, bored, Schmidt is watching television when he comes across a commercial for one of those charities to adopt a foster child in Africa. Schmidt picks up the phone and makes a pledge — perhaps feeling he might be able to redeem something of his life. Schmidt becomes the foster parent of a little boy named Ndugu, with whom he corresponds frequently. Well, more accurately, Schmidt uses the letters as a platform to talk about his life, allowing us to hear his thoughts, as he writes out diatribes about his life, his marriage (he can’t stand his wife Helen) and the impending marriage of his daughter Jeanie (Hope Davis) to Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a man he doesn’t think is good enough for his daughter.
A short time after Schmidt begins his correspondence Helen dies suddenly. His world is shattered. In his grief he leaves the house a mess, wandering about his large house impotently.
Daughter Jeanie and her fiancé Randall travel to Nebraska from Colorado for the funeral. Schmidt tells his daughter about his disapproval of Randall and asks her not to marry Randall. Naturally she’s not very happy with this request. Schmidt also announces his plans to take the RV on a road trip to his daughter’s home in Colorado, to arrive early and perhaps convince her not to marry Randall. This idea also does not sit well with Jeanie. But Schmidt has finally made a decision, is going to take action and in the last half of the film we follow Schmidt on a road trip he takes that eventually leads him to the home of Randall’s mother, Roberta (the wonderful Kathy Bates, a very gifted actress, and yes, she does have a nude scene, which is frankly pretty damn brave of her). Schmidt meets Randall’s family and seeing that dynamic in action just re-affirms in his mind that Jeanie is making a big mistake in marrying Randall.
In the end, Jeanie does marry Randall, much to Schmidt’s great disappointment, although in toasting the bride and groom at the wedding, he gives a loving speech about his daughter. Lesser writers than Payne and Taylor may have used the speech at the wedding to allow Schmidt to vocally express his disappointment, which might have added some tension or humor, but would have ultimately come across as trite.
Schmidt returns home to his empty house and a huge stack of mail. Going through the letters, he spots an airmail envelope. It’s from a nun who cares for little Ngudu, thanking Schmidt for his letters. Enclosed in the letter is a drawing from Ngudu, a child’s sketch of a stick-figure man and child holding hands. This is one of the most poignant moments of the film. Jack Nicholson is just incredible in this moment, staring at the drawing, tears welling in his eyes, as he finally realizes that he has made a difference to someone.
About Schmidt is filled with very human moments, many of them sad (especially from Jack Nicholson), but it does have some humor. In some scenes Nicholson’s facial expressions are priceless.
The supporting cast is very good, but as the film is, literally, about Schmidt, they only are a small part of the film. We, the audience, are on hand to view the world through Schmidt’s eyes. It’s a sad world at times, but in the end we care a great deal about Warren Schmidt.
About the DVD: the film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it looks great. Sound choices include Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, which is a nice bonus, but as this is a film mostly of dialog, with mainly the center channels being used. Extras include a number of deleted scenes, with text commentary from Alexander Payne.
**** out of ****