Nicholson's Schmidt is the most memorable and least glamorous protagonist this year in film.
"About Schmidt," starring Jack Nicholson, is a credible reflection on middle class retirement and self-awareness. I am moved by the static images of this retired insurance man, staring off into the unknown, comprehending little of what life means and failing miserably to deal with the recent loss of his wife of 42 years.
Don't look for Jack's patented wise-ass grin; his Warren Schmidt moves like a robot or a patient just off the surgery gurney--dazed and confused by life's indifference to him and his inability to make a difference.
The core of "About Schmidt's" success is Nicholson's ability to wrench meaning out of the commonplace: a small wringing of hands, an awkward, limping shuffle. Only when he assumes command of his Winnebago does he seem at all relaxed. Yet he cannot escape the existential awareness journeys offer (Remember his journey in "Easy Rider"?), as when an RV camp lady says to him, "I see inside of you a sad man."
Warren narrates through voice-over to his "adopted" son, a Tanzanian boy benefiting from Schmidt's $22 a month to a world charitable organization. Most of his letters to the child are inappropriately adult or insensitive to the child's impoverished, illiterate life. Yet the comments are a signal about how out of it Schmidt really is and how manipulative the child-care charities can be in getting a man's money.
Schmidt's ineffectuality is best expressed in his misguided, recently acquired concern for his daughter and the dorky, pony-tailed salesman she is about to marry. Don't look for a Monsoon or Fat Greek wedding; this one (they play Dan Fogelberg's "Longer" and Paul Stookey's "Wedding Song") is as bland as Schmidt's phlegmatic retirement party. For both those events and his own personal life, Schmidt is an outrider.
Director Alexander Payne, who caught the sad spirit of high school politics in "Election," triumphs here in directing a hero like us, lost in our thoughts, divorced from family and jobs, but good enough to carry on and maybe find some light while camping out on the top of the Winnebago.
Nicholson's Schmidt is the most memorable and least glamorous protagonist this year in film. He should take home the Oscar honors with more awareness than poor Schmidt, who might not have seen a movie this year.
No other film has better shown me how being prepared for retirement is a lifetime job. No other actor has played the man who wasn't prepared better than Jack (nor does Jack show signs of retirement himself). Thank goodness.