In the very first scene of About Schmidt, a man sits in an empty office, watching the clock on the wall strike five. He gets up, takes his briefcase (which is probably empty anyway), and walks out. He has retired from his job of several decades as the chief actuary of an insurance company. He has no hobbies, no intellectual pursuits, no big questions, no big answers. He will spend the rest of whatever life he has playing golf, watching TV, and pretending that he didn’t waste the gift of his existence on simply…well, existing. His name is Warren Schmidt, and now that he has nothing left to do, he will realize that he has never done anything, either.
These opening scenes reminded me of the same void of the spirit in Akira Kurosawa’s great Ikiru, but About Schmidt is more comic and sardonic than openly tragic. That doesn’t make it any the less affecting, though, and there are many moments where we laugh with a lump in our throat. Like the bureaucrat in Ikiru, it takes the face of death and a real void of the spirit for Schmidt to realize he’s wasted his life. His wife is a stranger to him — dutiful, polite, but somehow perpetually annoying, and one night he asks himself: Who is this strange woman in my house? But he has TV and trivia to drown out the angry hum of his disappointment, and for a while they work.
The two of them have plans, sort of. They’ve bought a Winnebago, and maybe they’ll hit the road and see the rest of the country like they’ve always meant to. That plan ends abruptly when Schmidt’s wife dies — the whole way the scene is set up and played off is both funny and haunting — and after going through the motions of burying her and grieving he asks himself: Who was that woman, anyway? What did she think of me? What do I think of myself? It comes as a shock to him to realize he has no answers, that his life has been astoundingly empty, and that he will soon be nothing at all.
His only companion in his grief is his estranged daughter, Jeannie, who flies out to be with him weeks before her own wedding. She’s marrying Randall, a water-bed salesman, a man Schmidt can’t stand to be in the same room with let alone entertain the idea of having him marry his daughter. She deserves better, he tells himself, and for the first time we hear him assert what he really wants out of life. And he crams himself into the Winnebago and takes to the road and tries to work up the gumption to tell his only daughter to get away from this creep before she makes all the same mistakes he did.
Schmidt does something else unusual for him: on a whim, he chooses to sponsor an African child through one of those TV-advertised charities [the one featured in the film is in fact real –ed.], and writes long, angry, confessional letters to the young boy. It’s been said that we can tell a perfect stranger more about ourselves than we can tell our closest friends, because there is no baggage, no repercussions. He pours out his grief and disappointment over everything into these letters, and they’re both side-splittingly funny and painful to listen to. We do find out what happens at the other end, but I suspect that is beside the point; what matters is that Schmidt finds an outlet for everything he could never say before, everything he had fifty-plus years of biting back so he could be comfortable and quiet.
He drives. He arrives at the house of his prospective son-in-law’s mother (played hilariously by Kathy Bates), a woman so free-spirited and anarchic in her habits that one person hardly seems container enough for it all. He winds up sleeping on one of the family’s waterbeds and throws his neck out, although the slapstick scene of him dealing with a sore neck (and later an overdose of painkillers) don’t mesh as well as the more direct comedy of him trying, trying, trying to speak his mind, and slamming into a brick wall at every turn.
The film is very funny, and it is also terribly sad. One of the saddest moments shows Schmidt going back to his old job, almost on a dare with himself, to see how much they really miss him — only to find that his replacement is all too eager to hustle him back downstairs, and his old file boxes are now sitting by the curbside waiting to be incinerated. In another scene that combines great humor and deep gloom, he meets a fellow Winnebago-driving couple at a trailer park, and is so starved for love that he kisses the other guy’s wife almost without knowing what he’s doing.
Schmidt is played by Jack Nicholson, an actor we normally associate with tempestuous roles — McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jack Torrance in The Shining, and on and on. I’m reminded of the casting trick pulled in the surreal black comedy Neighbors (another unsung favorite of mine), where party-animal John Belushi was cast as a dumpy, unassuming suburban drone and straight-arrow Dan Aykroyd played his lunatic neighbor. Nicholson is so naturally expressive that for him to hold back as much as he does in this movie doesn’t dampen his skill; if anything, if focuses it all the more. The film itself was directed by Alexander Payne, who between this, Election and the outstanding Sideways is shaping up to be one of the finest directors alive in America.
I mentioned earlier that I laughed a great deal during About Schmidt, but I wasn’t laughing simply because it was funny. I was laughing in recognition, in shock, and a lot of the time, at the sheer po-faced gall of the characters when they do the most insensitive things imaginable without blinking. Not because they’re stupid or bad, but because they simply don’t know any better, and we laugh hardest at what’s most familiar. We laugh that we may not cry, and at the end of About Schmidt there are tears, too, when Schmidt has a chance to speak his mind at long last. Call it a cautionary comedy: we laugh that we may not be Schmidt. And if you are…well, maybe it’s still not too late to be something else.