About Schmidt (2002)
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney
Synopsis: A man upon retirement embarks on a journey to his estranged daughter’s wedding only to discover more about himself and life than he ever expected.
We all know someone like Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson). In fact a good few of us lead our lives with the same blinkered lack of imagination or ambition. We become comfortable with our routines, and settle for a life without challenge simply because it offers us the least resistance. Schmidt is a man with a singular lack of imagination. As the film opens we see him sitting in his grey office, staring without emotion at the clock on the wall as its second hand ticks off the final seconds of his working life. You can be fairly sure that, in all the years he’s occupied that office, Schmidt has never rearranged the furniture or requested it be repainted — which is why it looks so different when, after his retirement, Schmidt visits his successor in the refurnished office.
Schmidt’s is a life filled with petty frustrations he does nothing to change, and things grow worse once he finds himself with an inordinate amount of spare time on his hands. Everything that Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years, does seems to annoy him, and he has nothing to say to her anymore. She tries to make the best of things, preparing the first breakfast of his retirement in their new Winnebago and enthusing over the future they’ll have together with an excitement that appears to be a little forced. Schmidt potters. An infomercial on TV prompts him to sponsor a child in Tanzania, and a short while after sending his first cheque he receives a letter informing him that the child he has fostered is a 6-year-old boy named Ndugu, and the young boy quickly becomes the conduit through which Schmidt expresses all those balled up frustrations in a series of long and completely inappropriate letters.
Then his life undergoes another seismic change when Helen dies from a stroke. Having now lost her, he realises that he loved her dearly. But then he discovers a bundle of love letters from an old lover with whom she had an affair and with whom Schmidt is still friendly. With his life appearing to be unravelling with alarming speed, Schmidt focuses on his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is about to be married to water bed salesman, Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a man whom Schmidt considers to be totally unsuitable for her. With her marriage only a matter of weeks away, Schmidt decides to take the Winnebago across country, but when his daughter balks at the idea he sullenly decides to revisit haunts from his past instead.
Although About Schmidt is a film about an old man, it’s really aimed at those still young enough to do something with their lives instead of succumbing to the soporific drone of a hum-drum existence which is measured in terms of the size of your house and bank balance, and the status of your job. Playing against type, Jack Nicholson gives a finely nuanced performance as a buttoned-down man who still wears a tie even though he’s retired. It must take a lot for an exuberant character like Nicholson to dampen that spark enough to deliver a convincing portrait of a man who has spent his life measuring risk without ever taking one himself, but he manages somehow, and even manages to win our sympathy by the movie’s close.
The humour of About Schmidt is mostly of a subtle nature, extracted mostly from quiet and wry observation, which makes the disruptive appearance of Kathy Bates, as Jeannie’s future mother-in-law, as much of a shock for the audience as it is for Schmidt. It’s as if she and her dysfunctional family have wandered in from another movie and this sudden injection of in-your-face comedy sits a little uneasily with what has gone before, despite a memorable performance from Bates. Schmidt’s encounter with them feels like an encounter in wonderland — he even attends their ‘tea party’ — and is by far the weakest part of the movie.
Ultimately, the message to be taken from About Schmidt is one of the oldest in movie history. Life is only really meaningful if, by living, you can enrich the lives of others, something which we learn that Schmidt has finally managed to do when he receives a letter from Ndugu. But, for the most part, the movie delivers that message in an intelligent and insightful manner, and leaves the audience to assemble the composite parts of that message for themselves rather than spoon-feeding it to them a piece at a time.