Imagine the horror of living an unfulfilling life. Watching such a life unfold onscreen can cause empathetic discomfort, but in the right hands, it can also be outright hilarious. Such is the case in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a movie that manages to be both melancholy and stomach-crampingly funny.
Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) knows how to put a happy face on misery, but he's still just a cow heading for the slaughter after living a life without risks. He's recently retired from a lackluster career; he's been married for 42 years to a woman (June Squibb) he doesn't truly know and who doesn't understand him either; and he has a daughter (Hope Davis) with whom he's never been close and who is about to marry a man whom he rightfully calls a nincompoop (Dermot Mulroney).
In an attempt to inject meaning into his waning life, Schmidt becomes a foster parent to Ndugu Umbo, a starving six-year-old boy in Tanzania. As accompaniment to his first donation check, he writes the boy a letter, in which he expounds at length about the failures and aggravations of his life, focusing on his less-than-perfect living conditions that include a wife who collects too many knick knacks and won't let him pee standing up.
After Schmidt drops the liberating letter in the mail, a tragedy occurs unexpectedly. He suddenly finds himself alone in his incomplete life, and the look of total confusion and loss on his face speaks volumes: Living this life is not something he can do or even wants to do. So he decides to come to the rescue of his daughter, Jeanie, and prevent her from marrying Randall Hertzel and making what could be the biggest mistake of her life. But is he too late to take an active role in her life?
Nicholson looks terrible in this film, a perfect echo of his character's inner turmoil. His drooping skin, unkempt hair, and dazed look certainly are those of a man with little time left to make something of his life. Watching him travel the Midwest in his camper, on a private mission to find meaning in his life, truly hits home, and we realize there's a bit of Schmidt in all of us.
If Schmidt is the heart of this film, then the Hertzel family is the humor. Kathy Bates is the lively and ever-available Roberta, Randall's mother. I literally squirmed in my seat when Warren and Roberta met on screen, but moments later, I was bucking with laughter in that same seat as she yells at her ex-husband (Howard Hesseman). Just as Schmidt's struggle hits home because of the tragic reality of his persona, the story's humor works because it too is real. The dialog and situations, although often outlandish, strike a familiar chord: This stuff happens every day in good old America. We're just happy it's all happening to someone else. Or is it?
Some might consider the film's pacing to be a flaw. Although I personally enjoy the pace and believe it perfectly suits the subject matter and Schmidt's character, others might think it feels longer than its two hour run-time. Director and cowriter Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth) lets the story flow at a leisurely pace, and at times, it does feel slow. However, it must be said that the ending, which is so perfect and emotionally satisfying that no other ending would do, probably would not have been as rewarding had we gotten there any faster.
There is also an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, and English and Spanish Subtitles.
THE BONUS FEATURES
Also on tap are five short films devoted to the Woodmen Tower. Using footage to be used for the opening credits of the film, Payne's assistant editors created some interesting pieces of their own. Although the replay value of these shorts is pretty insignificant, it is appealing to see how the same footage can be edited differently to create five completely different moods. Although not presented in anamorphic widescreen (perhaps due to one of the shorts featuring several seconds in full frame), Payne does offer a text introduction to the group of shorts.
Lastly, you'll find the film's theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 sound.