There have been many films about road trips but where as most deal with younger people About Schmidt has a hero (of sorts) aged 66. Jack Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, who recently retired from his job as the vice-president of a Nebraska-based insurance company. Having just ambled into a new part of his life Warren feels life closing in on him. He, although outwardly a loving husband, his wife of 42 years, Helen (June Squibb) has slowly been getting on his nerves. Couple with this and the fact that he despises his soon-to-be son-in-law, Randall (Dermot Mulroney) and believes that his beloved daughter Jeannie (Hope Davies) could have done so much better than him, Warren is at an impasse in his life.
When he looks back at the last 66 years of his life Warren cannot see any way in which he has made a difference. So, after watching a sponsor-a-child commercial, he decides to adopt a Tanzanian boy called Ndugu, to whom he writes long letter explaining about his new ‘father’.
When Helen suddenly dies, Warren finds himself alone and decides to pack his bags and take a road trip in his recently purchased, spacious RV (ridiculously huge American camper vans). After visiting some places from his childhood, Warren decides to pay Jeannie a visit under the guise of helping out with the wedding plans.
Once there, he meets the rest of Jeannie’s soon to be in-laws including Randall’s irrepressible mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates) and his father Larry (Howard Hesseman). Not overtly thrilled with the prospects that his little girl is joining into this bunch of strangers, Warren tries to travel a fine line between a doing his duty as a father and trying to prevent the union of his daughter into the strangest people he has met.
About Schmidt is an unsentimental yet very poignant look at the life of a character struggling with the questions that life throws up and wondering if his existence has in any small way made an impression on the world. The power of the film lies in two key aspects – the understated humour and the performance of its title character.
Jack Nicholson is likely to either win an Oscar or at least be nominated again for his portrayal of Warren Schmidt. Strange really seeing that it is one of his most understated performances to date – no sneering wise cracks or devilish smiles. This is definitely not one of his flamboyant, over-the-top characters, but rather a sad, quite man who realizes that the last six decades and more that he has spent on this planet have resulted in such an insignificant mark on it; a man with more than his share of despair. It needed to be something special as Nicholson is on-screen almost the entire time of the film.
Even though Nicholson’s performance is stand out, the rest of the case are no slouches themselves. Hope Davies is superb as Warren’s daughter who is treading a fine line between being the good daughter and showing the angry child underneath. Dermot Mulroney lets his mullet do the acting and is funny as the salesman who believes that the next big investment will be the one. Kathy Bates produces one of her most uninhibited performance as Roberta to date – although the nude scene produces more laughs through awkwardness than anything else.
Direct Alexander Payne has not only gotten great performances from his cast, but has managed to create a film that is many things yet at the same time almost nothing happens. It’s a great blend that works on many levels. It has many moments of cynicism, humour and even anger – yet it cannot be labelled a particularly cynical, humorous or even angry film; it just defies labelling itself at all. It does manage to combine serious issues with humour. Occasionally the film does feel over-long and a little winding, but ultimately it is one of the more interesting films this year. If you are looking for a film that will make you laugh out loud constantly then this is not the film for you, but if you are after a poignant tale about one man’s journey coping with his life changes then About Schmidt is definitely for you.
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