"About Schmidt" (New Line), 124 minutes, R
Directed by Alexander Payne; Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley
Jack Nicholson: Warren Schmidt
Kathy Bates: Roberta Hertzel
Hope Davis: Jeannie Schmidt
Dermot Mulroney: Randall Hertzel
Over a generation ago, Jack Nicholson went on a chopper odyssey that assailed bourgeois America. That film, "Easy Rider," had a happy ending. "About Schmidt" is another odyssey, this time in a massive van, with another happy ending but in a higher sense. Warning: the viewer must endure a shot of Kathy Bates naked, a sight that sends Nicholson leaping out of a hot tub.
Again the bourgeois enemy is Nicholson himself, this time an Omaha retired insurance company executive whose boring wife dies and estranged daughter is about to marry a loser. We see Nicholson in prime form, every twitch and grimace striking a chord within us. His Warren Schmidt has expertise in the statistics about longevity, but he hasn't a clue about the meaning of life, which is merely a matter of routines and fulfilling the demands of others. He lies to other people, and those closest to him have lied to him. He tries to be useful back at his old job but is clearly unneeded. He tries in vain to amuse himself. While channel surfing, he is moved by a television ad for an African children's charity. So he writes out a check, enclosed with a ranting letter denouncing his life. Following the incisive portrayal of the bourgeois as a man who thinks only of others when he is alone and only about himself when he is with other people, Schmidt discovers the meaninglessness of his life but will be graced by how it might have meaning.
His trip through Kansas and Nebraska takes him back through his life—his first home (replaced by a tire store) and his college fraternity house at Kansas University. Again, a chance encounter forces him to face up to his empty life. Throughout the journey, Schmidt writes to the African boy the charity has him sponsoring, often lying to him about how well he is doing. An epiphany on the rooftop of his camper causes him to cross himself and sweep away idols he had vainly gathered to comfort himself.
With his mind now clear, Schmidt drives to Denver to tell his daughter she must not marry her fiancÃ©, the son of Kathy Bates' character. Apparently never having felt his care for her (or at least not in the way she expected), his daughter reduces their connection to financial aid. Otherwise, she wants him out of her way.
Though he would like to denounce his worthless son-in-law at the wedding reception, he restrains himself and delivers an appropriate toast. Schmidt has learned to appreciate conventions as a reflection of civility and love for his daughter, and not as a means to his own self-esteem. Anyway, she is beyond any influence he would want to wield.
The return voyage to Nebraska takes him to a pioneer museum, which contrasts him in his van with the men and women who trekked westward. Schmidt goes in a circle, returning home. There the ending amazes: His outbursts, conceits, and confessions to the African boy are answered by a nun who has been caring for him. The illiterate boy encloses a crude picture of him and a man holding his hand. For the first time in a film filled with sorrows, Schmidt weeps. He has experienced the grace of God.