What happens to a person who is forced to rebuild his life in late middle age? How far are we willing to bend what we want to the will of the people we have chosen to be with? Is being an insurance actuary, in fact, the most depressing job in the known world? About Schmidt raises more questions than it answers, but the answer it does give is well worth the wait.Jack Nicholson plays Warren R Schmidt, a recently retired insurance actuary who loses his sense of self when he retires from his job. He was his job in many respects, and when itís gone he feels cut loose. He has developed what could best be described as ambivalence towards his wife. His daughter (Hope Davis) is engaged to a mullet-wearing bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney) that Warren has decided is not good enough for his little girl. After a series of sudden changes to his worldview, Warren decides that he has a duty to his daughter to make he see the error of her ways. So he sets of from Nebraska to Colorado in his huge camper and the movie takes place along the way.
Not that this is a Ďroad movieí by any standard definition. It feels as if the physical journey from one place to another is there as a function of the movieís central metaphor. In that regard it feels like you could draw a direct line between Nicholsonís performance in this film, and the character he plays in Easy Rider.
For the most part we stay on Schmidt as he winds his way towards Colorado and a confrontation with his soon-to-be son in law and his family. There is a sequence involving the Ďwackyí people he meets along the way, but theyíre random occurrences, not something the movie builds itself on. I have become so used to these characters becoming foes or allies in these movies that when Schmidt abruptly leaves, it threw me a bit.
When he arrives in Colorado, Schmidt is faced with not only his daughterís refusal to cancel the wedding, but his own flaws and foibles as well. For all of their boorishness and social ineptitude, Randallís (Mulroney) family is honest with each other. This comes as a stark contrast with Schmidt who is more than willing to lie to the people he is close to if he believes it is for their own good. Kathy Bates turns in a wonderful performance as Randallís mother; she is Schmidtís polar opposite, doing exactly what she wants to in all situations and not giving a damn what the consequences are.
No film Iíve seen recently has made as much use of stillness and quiet to make its points. At times Nicholsonís face fills the whole frame--except this isnít the manic facial contortions that have become one of his trademarks over the years. The camera just sits there and lets us into this manís thought processes in a way that many films donít let us. Quiet can also keep us from noticing the subtly building tensions that lead literally to the last frames of the film.While the pace of the thing could become trying to some, it really is worth your time to stay with this one until the end. I havenít had a movie leave me in as quiet and contemplative a place in a long time.