United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, Kathy Bates, Howard Hessman
Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley
New Line Cinema
When you're young, you live your life looking forward. The future looms larger and more full of promise than the past, and everyone not afflicted with incurable pessimism believes that the best is yet to come. But all things age, and die, and wither away, and there comes a time when every human being must pause and take stock of his or her mortality. It can be a hard thing to acknowledge that the expanse of the past is wider and more fertile than the ever-shrinking distance to the future's horizon, yet this is a reality that no one can escape.
Until recently, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) was like so many millions of American workers, leading a life bounded by conformity and routine. Now, at age 66, he has been forced to leave behind his assistant vice president job at a Nebraska-based insurance company, and amble into the great unknown of retirement. Suddenly, life seems to be closing in on Warren. Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years, is getting on his nerves, he despises the man (Dermot Mulroney) about to marry his beloved daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), and, most importantly, when he looks back at his six-plus decades of life, he can't see any way that he has made a difference. So, after watching a television infomercial, he writes out a check to a "Save the Children" organization and "adopts" a six-year old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. Then, unexpectedly, Helen dies and Warren finds himself alone. So he packs his bags, climbs into the spacious RV sitting in his driveway, and heads off to visit his daughter – after making a few stops along the way.
About Schmidt is an unsentimental yet effective portrait of a character struggling with the essential questions of life. Although it has moments of cynicism, this is not a cynical film. Although it contains instances of humor, it is not a comedy. And, although it contains elements of the road trip genre, it is not a road trip movie. Instead, this is an opportunity to spend two hours in the company of a fairly ordinary man who no longer understands the point of anything.
About Schmidt is at its best when the satirical and comedic elements are low-key and unforced. With the darkly funny Election, director Alexander Payne displayed a deft hand when combining serious issues with humor. He is not as successful here. At times, such as when Warren finds himself unwillingly sharing a hot tub with a naked woman (played with gusto by an uninhibited Kathy Bates), the laughs seem awkward and out-of-place. This results in an uneven, uncertain tone.
One thing that is rock-solid throughout is the performance of Jack Nicholson. Nicholson carries the movie, and does so by not just being Jack, but by using an understated approach to playing Warren. This isn't a flamboyant, over-the-top individual, but a sad, quiet man who looks at the world though lenses tinted with despair. This is one of Nicholson's best acting assignments in years, and the smart money has him at least being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar next year.
About Schmidt is on the long side. Some of the road trip detours drag a little and there are perhaps a few too many "colorful" characters. (For example, the vignette with Warren's exuberant, temporary RV neighbors comes across as little more than an opportunity to tack about 10 minutes onto the running length.) The catharsis at the end hits the right note, giving the viewer a sense of closure without betraying the character or cheapening what has gone before. On balance, I recommend the movie both for Nicholson's performance and for the opportunity to spend some time with the kind of man that we often meet in real life, but rarely see on screen.