“About Schmidt,” based on Louis Begby’s 1996 novel and the third film from Alexander Payne, is, as the title indicates, about Warren Schmidt, a 66-year-old recently retired insurance actuary who resides in Omaha. Schmidt, played with gracious subtlety by Jack Nicholson in his best role in over a decade, is a man who slowly comes to understand his entire life is all for naught.
His retirement plan is to travel across the country in his 35-foot Winnebago (The Adventurer) with Helen (June Squibb, “Far From Heaven”), his wife of 42 years. But with nothing to do, Warren starts to re-evaluate his life’s work, constantly nagging about his wife’s annoying habits (she interrupts him, collects trinkets and only eats at new restaurants) and getting flustered about his daughter’s (Hope Davis, “Home Alone”) upcoming marriage and his soon-to-be son-in-law (Dermot Mulroney, “My Best Friend’s Wedding”).
The rich characters of “Schmidt” are the byproduct of Payne’s direction and Begby’s novel, an ensemble of personalities that feels more like a group of distant relatives than actors. The symbiotic culmination produces characters that feel authentic, not fabricated. It’s no surprise that Payne is the brilliant mind behind 1999’s dark comedy “Election.”
Unlike “Election,” “About Schmidt” plays for more than just comedic effect. For every joke, there is an immediate reminder of the overarching tragedy of the story. Warren complains about every facet of his marriage, then his wife dies. Following the unexpected death of Helen, Warren hits the road in his gas guzzling Winnebago in an attempt to prevent his daughter’s wedding. For a while “About Schmidt” becomes a road movie, as the protagonist seeks some kind of meaning in his life on a sort of literal and metaphorical road trip across the Plains states.
Despite all of the quirky characters in the film (Kathy Bates gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the unapologetic in-law), the most memorable person is a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu (never seen on screen), who Warren decides to sponsor after seeing an ad on television. Through letters to his underpriveleged foster child (the most amusing parts of the film), Warren is able to vent his frustrations with his new life. Unknowningly to Schmidt, little Ndugu becomes his most appreciative friend.
Nicholson, following a string of embellished roles in recent years, opts this time for a more minimalist approach, wisely letting Payne’s script drive his character. It’s refreshing to see Nicholson’s virtuoso acting chops being used to form a real character rather than a caricature.
Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner Jim Taylor have taken several liberties with Begby’s novel, primarily in changing the title character from an upscale New Yorker to a humble Nebraskan. It’s a just alteration, as the Omahan Schmidt seems more accessible than a wealthy Manhattanite.
“About Schmidt” delicately balances comedy and drama and creates a film that is not only amusing, but heart-breaking. This complex case of cinematic bi-polarism is what makes Schmidt, and the film, so memorable.