Alexander Payne’s 2002 film, About Schmidt, is just as much the transformation of its star Jack Nicholson as it is the transformation of the character Jack plays “Warren Schmidt.” Here Nicholson is no longer the swaggering, smart-alecked, tough guy we have seen throughout his long, illustrious career but a quiet, shell of a nice guy trying to understand his life after retirement. Nicholson does such an amazing job portraying this loser of a character one wonders why he hasn’t been playing this type all along.
The movie begins with the retirement of Warren Schmidt. He is a typical Midwestern “good guy” who is retiring as an executive from an insurance company. Schmidt is an everyman schlub. He has worked hard to have a “normal” life. He has a good job, a good wife, and a nice daughter. Yet upon retiring, the death of a loved one, and his daughter’s imminent marriage Schmidt must take a harder look at his life. In doing so he comes to realize there isn’t much to it, really. The bulk of the movie centers on Schmidt traveling to Colorado to try to stop his daughter from marrying a redneck boob.
There are numerous perfect spoofs of Midwestern living. From Schmidt’s life to his retirement plans of living in a trailer, the details of a typical Midwestern life are just about perfect. While on the road, Schmidt stops at numerous Interstate museums that are so banal it is hilarious. Once he arrives in Colorado the characterizations of the fiancee and his family are both hilarious and frighteningly real.
Dermot Mulroney plays the mullet-wearing, salesman fiancee, and Kathy Bates plays the still living in the 60’s time of free love soon-to-be mother-in-law. The family dinner before the wedding is reminiscent of real life, mixing hilarity and sadness with the eye of an artist. The actual wedding is so dead on perfect that I believe I have actually attended that very ceremony. From the off-key singing of the schmaltzy “Longer” to the self-written vows (I will love you every day, and when I say day I mean all 24 hours, and when I say hours I mean…) the ceremony is hilarious in its real-life cheeseball hokeyness and yet manages to remain as sweet.
This is what makes the film so memorable. While it pokes fun and satirizes everyday Midwestern life it is full of rich glowing love for that very life. Schmidt is a normal schmuck who has lived his life by the rules. While at the end of his life he begins to regret that simple life, I don’t believe the film is suggesting that this type of life is meaningless. Just the opposite, in fact, I believe it is showing all of us, every day schmucks, that living a normal life can be glorious in its own way when we help those around us.