Warren Schmidt is a sad man. He has just retired from his job with an insurance company. Sleeping next to his wife of 42 years is like sleeping next to a stranger. He lives in Nebraska.
Alexander Payne, director of Election, took the book by Louis Begley and turned it in to his own cinematic story. Although I have yet to read the book, looking through the excerpts on Amazon.com, it is clear that Payne liberally re-craft the book with his writing partner Jim Taylor.
Shortly after his retirement, Schmidt and his wife toast to the new chapter in their lives from the breakfast nook in their newly purchased Winnebago. With all sorts of free time on his hands now that Schmidt has left the corporate world for a life of leisure, Schmidt adopts a child through children's aide charity he sees advertised on TV. He heads out one afternoon to mail off his first monthly check of $22 (which works out to only 71 cents a day to keep a child in Africa from knowing the pains of starvation) and Helen, his wife, reminds him not to dilly dally as she vigorously works on cleaning the carpet.
Schmidt returns home to find his wife face down on the floor, dead from a blood clot in her brain.
With his wife dead, Schmidt is left to fend for himself. The car broke down and he turned to using the RV as his main vehicle. He starts to use the decorative plates because all the real plates are dirty. He takes himself to the grocery store in the RV and purchases a hearty supply of assorted frozen pizzas.
Schmidt's pathetic state is also illustrated by the shot where he dozes off while writing his letter to Ndugu (his adopted son) in his bathtub that is reminiscent of the Jacques-Louis David painting "Death of Marat".
For some reason, Schmidt wakes up one night, packs his bags and heads out in the RV. Driving from town to town Schmidt first does a little personal history tour, going back to the town he was born in only to find that his childhood home is now a Tires Plus and then starts to visit the tourist places in the area like the home of Buffalo Bill Cody.
Eventually Schmidt makes his way out to Colorado for his daughter's wedding. She's marrying a mullet-wearing, El Camino-driving, water bed salesman and Schmidt is none too pleased. The night he arrives in Denver he urges her not to go through with the wedding but Jeannie refuses to listen to him. He does his best to keep a brave face through the wedding and returns back to Omaha feeling that he has done nothing with his life of any value.
While going through the mail that arrived while he was away, Schmidt finds a letter from one of the nuns who takes care of Ndugu. Although Ndugu is too young to read or write, he has the Sister mail Schmidt a painting he made for him- a picture of a small child holding a an adult's hand. Touched, Schmidt bursts into tears.
And so did I.
Roger Ebert, who's film reviews I rarely agree with in the first place, described Schmidt as a man who is not a "selfish man, mostly because there is nothing he has that he wants and nothing he lacks that he cares about.' I couldn't disagree with him more. He cares about the fact he is getting to the end of his life and he has nothing to care passionately about. His wife is dead. He has missed out on making the woman he loved the passion of his life. His daughter seems set on insisting that he can't change his attitude towards her and take an interested in her life. He lacks people who care about him. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone seems to have a much better understanding of the film and the work of Payne in general.
The behavior of the daughter irritated me far more than the behavior of Schmidt. She flies into town for her mother's funeral without helping her father with any of the preparations and then criticizes Schmidt for choosing a cheap casket. If she really cared that much about her mother's funeral she should have helped with the arrangements. When Schmidt calls her from the road saying he is arriving in Colorado to help with the wedding preparations, she refuses to let him come early and tells him to stick to the original plan of arriving a few days before hand. When he wakes up unable to move after a night sleeping on a waterbed after he finally gets to Colorado, she berates him for letting her down and for tooling about the countryside when they have all been completely stressed out.
Schmidt is a very sad man. He is 66 and alone and afraid that he will die not having done nothing that made a real difference in someone‘s life. His wife died and he had no clue what she really thought of him. He unfortunately knows what his daughter thinks of him. He is full or regret and lacks the time to change what he feels he has done wrong. I'd be sad too if I got to the end of my life and felt that way.
Like with Election, Payne shot the movie on location in Omaha. At one point Schmidt walks into a Dairy Queen to order a blizzard. The lazy eyed counter girl looked more like an actual Dairy Queen employee than an actress and I leaned over to the person I saw the movie with and said "Can you imagine being her? You are at work and someone comes in and is all like ‘Would like you to be in our movie with Jack Nicholson?'”
Jack Nicholson gives one of his best performances if only because it is so different from the roles he usually takes on. It is hard to watch a movie and not think about the fact you are watching Jack Nicholson perform, but I did not doubt for a moment that he really could be a man from Nebraska who worked in insurance all his life. Kathy Bates also does an outstanding job as Roberta, the crazy new mother-in-law. It's a shame she isn't in the movie longer than she is because she is that much fun to watch in this role. I would like to see them both nominated for Oscars. And although I haven't read the book, I wouldn't be surprised if Payne grabbed himself an Oscar nod for his adaptation.
Jack Nicholson .... Warren Schmidt
Kathy Bates .... Roberta Hertzel
Hope Davis .... Jeannie Schmidt
Dermot Mulroney .... Randall Hertzel
June Squibb .... Helen Schmidt
Howard Hesseman .... Larry Hertzel