Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by:Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb
Released: February 6, 2003
Grade: A-

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) is 66 years old.  He’s been married to wife Helen (Squibb) for 42 years.  He has one daughter, Jeannie (Davis), who’s moved away and now engaged to Randall (Mulroney), a mattress salesman who invests in pyramid schemes.  All his life Warren’s worked at the same insurance company and has just closed this chapter of his life with a quaint retirement party.

Instantly, Warren starts suffering withdrawal symptoms from being away from work.   He has too much free time and not enough to do with it - it’s somewhat of a late-life crisis.  The routine he’d developed over time has been suddenly broken and he’s very uncomfortable with the situation.  His wife has convinced him to buy a luxury camper van so they can travel across the country visiting heaps of places and do things together.  Warren’s not exactly thrilled.

An unexpected event will soon throw Warren’s plans out the window.  He’ll begin a new journey of self-discovery that will involve members of his current family, members of his future family, and members of a long distant “foster” family.  They will all play their part in answering Warren’s question whether he has used his life to make a difference - a question he finds the need to have answered.

People are sick and tired of my ravings for a low-profile 1999 release called Election.  Despite near-unanimous critical acclaim, the Matthew Broderick / Reese Witherspoon film struggled commercially.  Few saw the black comedy and many that did, failed to appreciate the many small nuances that made it so great.  About Schmidt is from the same writing/directing team that made Election, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.

Both deserve recognition and the Hollywood Foreign Press provided that a few weeks ago when their script for About Schmidt won the best screenplay award.  It won’t be the only time they’re honoured because this film has a deeply layered story that like Election, balances the genres of comedy and drama without swinging either way.  I expect older generations to relate most to Warren’s story but there’s ample material (with emphasis on Jeannie’s wedding) to give everyone food-for-thought.

Himself in his later years, Jack Nicholson lets his sarcastically depressed expression epitomise this role.  He says very little (apart from voice-overs) but there’s no need to.  With the bunch of quality roles he’s received of late, there’s no need for Nicholson to consider retirement despite his age of 65.  The most surprising “appearance” comes from the 54-year-old Kathy Bates, who as Warren’s future mother-in-law, reveals a lot more than you would expect in an hilariously crazy scene late in the film.

As a minor criticism, the film did drift off the road at times.  I’d have preferred to see a shorter introduction and more time spent with Randall’s family and their wedding preparations but I can understand the filmmakers’ willingness to focus on Warren rather than the supporting cast - as the title itself says, it is about Schmidt.  In all, it’s a touching journey that will leave some audience members quietly giggling and others deeply contemplating.  Another quality addition to the Oscar season.