Rated R - Running Time: 2:05 - Released 12/13/02

“Has my life made a difference?”

This is something that probably occurs to most people (at least most introspective and reasonably thoughtful people) later in life, especially at transitional periods like retirement. Jack Nicholson, giving one of the best performances of his career, plays a man facing this question in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, based on the novel written by Louis Begley and adapted for the screen by director Payne and his regular writing partner, Jim Taylor. I know Nicholson has made bigger splashes in movies like Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining, but it is in films like this where his technique is most apparent; his ability to portray a frail, broken everyman is a more telling example of his talent than hatcheting his way through a bathroom door and saying, “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” A melancholy account of the depression brought on by an unfulfilling career, a stagnant marriage, and an inattentive fatherhood, made more acute by the simultaneous ending of all three, Schmidt is a sad movie with a slow pace and an air of quiet desperation, but nonetheless a moving and affecting piece of work. Nicholson is pathetic, and normal, and endearing, but above all real; his supporting players are no less adept, and director Payne clearly knows how to use his actors’ talents, bringing it all together to the best effect.

After a thoughtful but uninspiring retirement dinner given by the Omaha insurance company where he served for 32 years, 66-year-old Assistant Vice President Warren Schmidt is cut loose into the cold world of retirement. Treated like a child by his dull wife Helen (June Squibb) and no longer particularly welcome at his old office, he searches for some meaningful diversion, finally deciding to sponsor a starving African child through one of those TV charity organizations. Seeing a picture of his sponsoree, Ndugu (played [in photos only] by real-life starving African child Abdallah Mtulu, who incidentally received a lifetime endowed scholarship courtesy of this film’s production crew), inspires Warren to write to him, even though the 6-year-old Tanzanian cannot read or write. Before he can tell Helen about his new pen pal, however, she drops over dead from a blood clot in the brain.

Helen’s death brings not only the painful realization that he never properly appreciated her, but also a visit from their daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and her boorish fiancé Randall (Dermot Mulroney) from Denver, who must interrupt their hectic wedding plans to help with the funeral arrangements. After Helen’s interment, Warren decides to take a road trip in the huge new Winnebago he bought with her. He visits his childhood home and his Kansas University fraternity house, has a few misadventures and an awakening of sorts, all candidly and thoughtfully expressed to Ndugu, and eventually ends up in Denver a few days before the wedding. Meeting Randall’s goofy family, especially his crass, sex-starved mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), further convinces him that Jeannie should reconsider, but his attempt to tell her this only results in their further estrangement.

This is no doubt an actor’s film; the challenge is not to create incredible visuals and a complex, intricately woven story line, but to test the actors’ ability simply to be real. Although there are some funny moments, it is not by any means a comedy (despite some indications to the contrary in its trailer), and there are few of the one-liners or quirky characterizations to help make the performances memorable. This is why it is a challenging film to make, and a rewarding one to watch. Director Payne creates a dark and brooding tone by shooting almost every scene in cloudy or rainy weather, and Warren’s loneliness is further indicated by his habit of pouring out his deepest feelings to Ndugu, a 6-year-old African stranger with whom he literally has nothing in common. The final scene, in which the child’s relationship to Warren is so eloquently revealed, is one of the most emotionally moving scenes I have ever witnessed. Nicholson is fantastic.

Like The Hours, About Schmidt is not flashy, uplifting, nor very funny, and may be regarded as too depressing for moviegoers in search of simple escapism, but is definitely worth seeing as an example of “slice of life” cinema featuring one of the best actors working today. ****½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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