A more appropriate title for this movie would have been "About Nicholson," as this film is the best showcase of his legendary acting career. It's a sparkling portfolio that shows us more depth from Nicholson than we ever gave him credit for. He has always portrayed the sarcastically senile, speaking in a monotone voice that is so serious it's funny. In "About Schmidt," he takes it to another level.
I say this because the entire movie is about him. He is in almost every scene and is always the focus of what is going on. He plays Warren Schmidt, and as he painfully points out, he is 66 years old. In the opening scene, Schmidt is suffering through his retirement dinner, where he finds more enjoyment after escaping to the bar to have a drink by himself, rather than listening to his coworkers ramble on about what a great man and dedicated worker he was. He is now retired from his life-long career at an Insurance Co., and replacing him is a younger, snappier employee (Matt Winston) who will make forgetting Schmidt a painless procedure.
Schmidt wakes up the next morning realizing that he has nothing to do, so he begins to make observations. He looks at his wife who is sleeping next to him, and questions, "After 42 years of marriage, I ask myself who is this old woman who is in my house?"
This old woman is Helen Schmidt (June Squibb). She is a faithful wife who stayed home to cook and clean while her husband worked. Her life has become so routine for Warren, that he forgets how important she is to him.
Schmidt returns to the office to offer advice and assistance to the new guy, but finds that none is needed. For the first time, he realizes that his life is now useless and means nothing. "When I die, and when everyone else I know dies, it will be like I never existed," he says at one point.
Schmidt begins to break down as the thought of being unimportant gets to him, so he looks for an outlet to vent his feelings, thoughts and opinions. Out of sheer desperation, he does something that his normal character probably would have never done. He picks up the phone and sponsors a 6-year old Tanzanian child named Ndugu, after watching a childrens' charity program infomercial. When he receives his first donation letter in the mail, he is asked to submit a check in the amount of $22, and is also encouraged to write a letter to Ndugu.
But he doesn't just write a letter, he writes a confessional. This sets the narrative tone for the rest of the movie. After ever major event, he begins to write to Ndugu. It doesn't matter if the boy from the third-world country can read or write (or if he even receives the letters), the confessionals allow Schmidt to get everything off his chest, and he pretends that they will be read on the other end with great interest. This allows him to become a fatherly figure again, after losing those privileges when his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) grew up.
The highlight of the movie is when Schmidt comes to the realization that his daughter is about to marry the world's biggest moron. His name is Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney). He comes from a family that would make the Beverly Hillbillies proud. He's a waterbed salesman and occasionally jumps into pyramid schemes thinking he's in a legitimate investment.
There is a priceless scene that takes place in the Hertzel home where Schmidt visits before the wedding. Randall has ribbons and plaques that decorate the walls, but his awards are not for championships, but for attendance and participation. His highest achievement is a certificate he received stating that he graduated from a 2-week technical class. But his mother Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates) would boast about the awards as if they were gold medals. She is the type of woman who fits the 'only a mother could love that face' persona.
But before Schmidt visits his new family in Denver, Colorado, he goes on a road trip in his RV. We don't exactly know why he goes on the road trip, other than to just get out. He can't find himself, because there's nothing to find out about him outside of Omaha, Nebraska. He visits his old fraternity at Kansas State, but isn't appreciated by the current students there. He finds an old picture of himself on the wall, but it is surrounded by other faces, none more distinguished than the others.
Kathy Bates gives one of her best performances as the centerpiece of her dysfunctional family. Her ex-husband is always home for dinner with his new oriental girlfriend, and can never go an evening without proposing a toast. We don't think he does this because he actually cares about his son and new daughter-in-law, but because he likes to hear himself talk. Most of time the other family members aren't paying attention. Rather, they keep their faces buried in their food that is set-up on a turntable. Next to the potatoes, is a box of dog treats, which shows us that cleanliness is not a priority in this household.
After witnessing firsthand the Neanderthal-like behavior of his new family-to-be, Schmidt begs his daughter to reconsider her decision to marry the waterbed salesman. But Jeannie doesn't vacillate for a second. She scorns her father and pleads for him to accept Randall, whether he does or not by the end of the movie is up to your interpretation.
But we must forgive Schmidt. Like most fathers, he wants the best for his daughter. When she falls in love with Randall, Schmidt comes to the conclusion that he has failed. He couldn't give his daughter the world, so she settles for a below-average man. But crisis or not, it bottles up, and it is released through yet another letter to Ndugu.
Schmidt is one of the most interesting characters I've seen this year. On the surface he is a simple aging man with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and on the inside he is just as simple, but there are questions we have about him that only we can interpret. Does he regret being retired? He looked so miserable in the office, but looks even worse at home. Although he expresses his hatred towards Randall many times to his daughter, does he finally accept him as his son when they wed?
You may also find yourself asking the same questions about your own life. Schmidt confesses to himself that despite his complaints, his wife was great to him. He wonders if he was just as good to her. How are we portrayed by other people? Schmit's replacement at the insurance company probably never knew how much resentment Schmidt had for him, do people feel that bitter about us behind our backs? And most importantly, after watching Schmidt in his latter years, will we re-map our own lives to avoid the voids he rain into?
"About Schmidt" is just as much of a comedy as it is a drama, and just as serious as it is humorous. It is a comedy because you will laugh sporadically, but at what points I can not tell you. Everyone in the theater reacted differently at every scene. Sometimes everyone erupted at the same time, on other occasions it would be a few people laughing here and there. Some laughed more than others, while some laughed equally but at different parts. And at the same time, there is a serious side of Schmidt that isn't always visible under his silly and overreacting demeanor. While I don't consider this movie sad or depressing, I did her a little sniffling behind me and I even saw a little tear wiping. I wish I would have been that attached to the character, it would have made the experience that much better.
On the down side, this movie drags severely. Director Alexander Payne has a habit of letting the scenes linger longer than they need to. For example, it stays on the same shot until the Winnebago has completely driven off screen or a character has completely walked into the house and the door has shut behind them; an obvious sign that this movie could have used some more trimming. When you look at the critics' reviews, you'll see that anyone who gave it a 'C' or less complained about the pace and duration. For everyone else, that didn't bother them.
"About Schmidt" is a great movie. It is a hybrid of comedy, drama and tragedy all at the same time that is just as strong as any of those genres would be individually of a different movie. If you've always been a Nicholson skeptic, "About Schmidt" is your cure. If you've always been a Nicholson fan, "About Schmidt" is your satisfaction.