U.S. Release Date: December 13, 2002
Distributor: New Line
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne
Producer: Bill Badalato
Composer: Rolfe Kent
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates
Running Time: 2 hours and 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (some language and brief nudity)

A Life of Quiet Desperation
by C.A. Wolski

Warren Schmidt is facing his twilight years with the knowledge that he has lived a productive life. He spent 32 years with the same insurance company, becoming a vice president and chief actuary. He has a devoted wife and daughter, a house, a new Winnebago—all the things conventional society says is needed for a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, Warren Schmidt finds no meaning, no importance in any of these things. It is Warren Schmidt's resulting philosophical quest for the meaning of life that frames writer-director Alexander Payne's About Schmidt.

Rarely are movies so overtly philosophically oriented as About Schmidt. There is no realization half way through that Schmidt is trying to find himself. He knows it and so do we from the beginning. But that's not to say that the movie is a dry philosophical treatise. Quite the contrary, it is a savagely funny, sad and satirical. The stage is set early at Schmidt's retirement party when a friend toasts him with the idea that the only thing that has meaning is a productive life, which to the outside world Schmidt has lived. However, Schmidt knows he hasn't. In a brilliant piece of acting, we see star Jack Nicholson's face subtly change as he realizes his life hasn't been productive because it has no meaning to him. What follows is a series of picaresque adventures related to Schmidt's African "foster" child/conscience Ndugu in which he tries to find meaning by helping at his daughter's wedding, pouring his heart out to a fellow traveler, visiting the sites of his past and connecting with the world that has passed him by. And just as meaning and fulfillment have seemed to have eluded him, Schmidt finds an answer in an unexpected yet logical place.

About Schmidt is poignant and at times powerful, held together by Nicholson. Instead of going over the top with Schmidt, Nicholson internalizes his performance most of the time, looking as if he's about to explode at any moment. It's a sight to watch, both painful and fascinating, since there are no big emotional moments of truthful confrontation aside from the Ndugu letters which are a combination of frank honesty and sugar-coated fantasy.

But the picture's strength is also its weakness. The plot structure is a bit meandering with not much happening. Schmidt is an observer most of the time, so he doesn't move things along. He reacts to them with the emotions and words expected by conventional society.

And though Schmidt's soon-to-be-in-laws (played by the equally excellent Kathy Bates, Dermot Mulroney and Howard Hessman) are interesting to watch, they're a bit too colorful, and his daughter Jean (Hope Davis) is a little too self-absorbed and shrill.

However, with all its weaknesses, it is the movie's overall strength in Nicholson's performance that makes About Schmidt worth seeing and thinking about.

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