Hollywood is not very good at making movies that reflect the way real people live, act and think. Or maybe it’s more truthful to say that most of us won’t pay good money to watch the monotony of daily life on the big screen. Our lives are too full of PTA meetings, trips to the Dairy Queen, empty stretches of highway and backed up septic systems to make for riveting cinema. We know it, and Hollywood knows it. But somehow About Schmidt director Alexander Payne didn’t get the memo. Born and raised in Omaha, Payne has made a film about a staid Midwestern man (also from Omaha) who seems to wrap into himself an indelible humanness that moviegoers instantly connect with. He gets inside your head from the very first seconds of the movie, as he sits silently in his barren corporate office, watching the wall clock’s second hand lurch around its face, inexorably forcing the big hand to 12 and the little hand to 5. Boxes are stacked along one wall, waiting to be hauled downstairs. And Warren Schmidt placidly waits for the final moments of his career to expire. He gets up. He puts on his coat. He turns off the light. He walks to his car. At his retirement party that night (he had been a vice president and actuary at an insurance company), he listens to the toasts, smiles wanly, and then, unnoticed, slips away to order a solitary drink at a bar. The days and weeks pass as Warren struggles with his newfound uselessness. Then his wife of 42 years dies while vacuuming the carpet. The funeral comes and goes. The well-wishers wish him well. And then he’s truly alone. But Warren Schmidt knows good and well that he’s been alone his whole life. He just doesn’t know what to do when the reality of it boldly stares him in the face.
On the television, one day, he sees a commercial for Childreach/Plan, a relief organization (one that’s not concocted for the film) asking those who have to support those who haven’t. Warren picks up the phone, calls the toll-free number, and then writes a check. Nothing changes, of course. His lonely life simply continues. In Denver, his only daughter, Jeannie, is engaged to be married to a waterbed salesman named Randall. Warren thinks Randall is, in his words, a "nincompoop" and simply "not up to snuff" for his little girl. So after a considerable amount of inner turmoil, Warren hits the road in his brand-new, deeeeluxe RV, to personally try and dissuade Jeannie from her marriage plans. During his journeys through the Nebraska and Kansas countryside, his adventures (a word that may well be too grand for visiting roadside museums and tidy campsites) are backdropped by a series of letters he writes to the Tanzanian child he is sponsoring. Letters that provide this reserved, buttoned-down retiree the only emotional outlet he’s ever allowed himself to have.
positive elements: About Schmidt eloquently explores sadness, loneliness, depression, loss and disappointment. And if it hadn’t dug any deeper, it still would have provided lots of late-night conversation material. But it does—by proffering an antidote. Moviegoers clearly see that it’s only when Warren takes his eyes off himself and focuses them on a 6-year-old orphan living half-way around the world that he sees clearly. Giving yourself away to others is just about the best way to insure that you don’t lose yourself. Put another way, "It’s what you did with your life [that matters]." That’s what Warren’s best friend, Ray, says while toasting him at his retirement party. "Here’s to raising a fine family. Building a fine home. To being respected by your community. To having wonderful, lasting friendships. At the end of his career, if a man can say, ‘I did it. I did my job,’ then he can retire in glory and enjoy riches far beyond the monetary kind. So, all you young people here, take a good look at a very rich man!" Such sentiments apply to teens as equally as they do to seniors.
Warren’s letters also urge moviegoers to appreciate the good things in their lives while they still have them. Before his wife died, Warren was prone to criticize her and take her for granted. After her passing, he was overcome with how damaging that attitude had been.
spiritual content: A prayer is offered in a church, and a portion of 1 Corinthians 13 is read. Warren crosses himself in an effort to thank God for giving him a momentary measure of peace about his wife’s passing. Friends tell him they will be praying for him.
nudity and sexual content: Roberta (who is Jeannie’s fiancé’s mother) regales Warren with the juicy details of Jeannie and Randall’s sex life, and rambles on about her own overactive libido (which she says first blossomed at the age of six). In her house, she has artwork that includes nudes. Moviegoers catch a brief glimpse of Warren’s backside and endure a longer look at a nude Roberta (a close-up of her chest and a long shot of her side and back), who disrobes to join Warren in a hot tub. On the road, Warren meets a woman with whom he shares a deep conversation about loss, anger and fear. Feeling a connection with her and finding himself overwhelmed with her understanding and compassion (despite the fact that he knows she is married), he suddenly kisses her. Such a scene might not even be worth mentioning in a review of an R-rated movie except for the woman’s reaction. She is repelled by his advance and orders him out of her RV. This reviewer was pleasantly surprised by her reaction. After watching scores of concocted Hollywood love scenes unfold in which the mere whiff of sexual attraction expels all notion of decency, decorum and self-respect, I expected her to not only welcome his kiss, but carry things further. She did not, and the result is a positive message about the way real people behave—and if they don’t, should. Later in the film, Warren mimics that woman’s actions when he rebuffs a sexual advance from Roberta. Looking through his deceased wife’s things, Warren comes across decades-old love letters she received from his friend, Ray. Distraught and feeling betrayed, Warren ...
violent content: ... throws the letters in Ray’s face and flails at him with his hands.
crude or profane language: Four f-words punctuate the otherwise surprisingly restrained dialogue (only three or four other mild profanities). Unfortunately, the Lord’s name is abused 15 times ("Jesus" and "Christ" are used six times; "g--d--n" six times).
drug and alcohol content: Friends and co-workers drink wine at Warren’s retirement party (he sneaks away to order a vodka gimlet). Wine and beer is consumed several other times. Warren and Roberta drink Manhattans. After suffering from an extremely stiff neck, Warren takes some of Roberta’s expired Percodan, which makes him a bit loopy.
other negative elements: In his effort to "keep things real," Payne decided to include many of life’s mundane activities, such as driving to the post office to mail a letter ... and going to the bathroom. Warren is seen relieving himself no fewer than three times. Once, he intentionally wets the floor around the toilet as a retaliatory gesture to his wife, who had made him be more, shall we say, fastidious than he desired throughout his life. Roberta makes a remark about breastfeeding Randall until he was five (she thinks that’s why he turned out so good; audiences are supposed to laugh because it’s clear that he didn’t).
conclusion: It could be said that, at a certain level, About Schmidt is slow, boring and snared in minutia. But it would be crass and unfair to leave it there. Under its placid skin, it’s a riveting drama about what makes us human and what makes us whole. Interestingly, Schmidt also serves as a two-hour solicitation for Childreach (there are far worse things it could be), and a stage on which star Jack Nicholson has the opportunity to finally show us that he’s not yet irrelevant.
About Schmidt may well contain Jack Nicholson’s best performance to date. The reason? Warren Schmidt is about as far from Jack Nicholson as any two people could be. And Jack pulls it off with style. "I sort of un-Jacked myself," he told Entertainment Weekly. "Schmidt is a depressed guy and I was playing him 12 to 14 hours a day ... so I let myself go completely physically." And emotionally. It turns out that I was needlessly bracing myself for the "bigness" of Jack to suddenly break loose from Schmidt’s "smallness" and bust up the joint. It doesn’t happen. And About Schmidt is all the better for it.
"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." That’s what Henry David Thoreau wrote. This movie is what he meant. And then, in the nick of time, Warren’s "song" is released and everything is transformed by a brilliant ray of hope that sends shock waves up and down your soul. Still, with all due respect for the artistic process—and Alexander Payne’s attention to detail—we all could have done without the frequent trips to the bathroom, unnecessarily profane exclamations, and a full, unfettered view of Kathy Bates in her birthday suit. Good qualities or no, that's more than enough to take this Oscar contender off wise families' "to-see" list.