Neither a flat-out comedy nor a straight-faced drama, About Schmidt, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, is a low-keyed character study that balances its tone between the whimsical and the tragic. The title character, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), is newly retired from his job with an insurance company. He looks, moves and speaks like a guy who’s been emptied out by years of routine, a complacent husk who’s being forced to take a look at his life and doesn’t like what he sees. His wife of 42 years, Helen (June Squibb), seems to be an irritating stranger; his daughter, Jeanne (Hope Davis), from whom he is emotionally estranged, is about to marry an amiable loser called Randall (Dermot Mulroney), and his general feeling is that his years of work have accomplished nothing.
One evening, in this vulnerable state, Schmidt sees a TV spot asking people to sponsor a foster child in Tanzania, something that speaks to his need to do a simply useful deed. Soon he’s accompanying the small sums he sends to his distant adoptee, 6-year-old Ndugu, with long letters describing what’s going on in his life, a combination of self-analysis and self-deception that becomes the movie’s voice-over track. When circumstances force him to take his outsized Winnebago and travel from his home in Omaha to Denver, where his daughter’s wedding is to take place, you figure it’s going to be some sort of ride to redemption. But the movie isn’t quite that simple.
Schmidt isn’t as barbed as Payne’s last film, Election, but it does get some humorous mileage out of the forced jocularity that sometimes passes for social intercourse among the common folk, which would seem condescending if it wasn’t so on-the-money. In any event, it’s Nicholson’s carefully calibrated performance as a smaller-than-life man trying to find some corner of peace that makes the film as good as it is, which is very good indeed.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.