December 29, 2002 -- "About Schmidt" is a brilliant comedy, one of the best films of the year, about an insurance actuary who begins to wonder if his life's work made a difference to anyone.
Jack Nicholson ("The Pledge") stars as the title character, Warren Schmidt. After he retires, he is dismayed at how quickly he is replaced at the insurance company where he worked for many years. Then his wife of over 30 years dies. His daughter, Jeannie (played by Hope Davis of "Mumford"), is about to marry a cipher named Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney of "Lovely and Amazing") in Denver, Colorado. Being an experienced actuary, Schmidt knows about how much longer he is likely to live. He just needs to figure out what he is going to do with the time he has left. Schmidt embarks on a journey in a huge motor home from Omaha, retracing his roots. He visits the town where he grew up. Visits his old fraternity on the campus where he went to school. He tries to get his bearings from these familiar landmarks, but he is still lost in this new life of retirement and irrelevancy.
The only person he confides in is his adopted godson who lives in Africa. Schmidt enters one of those sponsorship programs where he sends money to an organization which partners him with an orphan in Africa. In the letters to the orphan he reveals his frustrations with himself and his family. These letters seem to be the only way he can express his true feelings. The letters are hilarious in their candor and in their single-mindedness. Schmidt's daughter does not want to hear about his misgivings about her marriage, she also doesn't want to mother him and she doesn't want him hanging around before the wedding, either. This forces Schmidt's voyage of discovery. When he finally gets to Denver he has memorable encounters with his in-laws, including earth mother-of-the-groom Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates of "Primary Colors"), and her ex-husband, the ever babbling Larry Hertzel (Howard Hesseman of "WKRP in Cincinnati").
There are wonderful performances by Nicholson and Bates with good supporting performances by Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney. Usually, Nicholson plays a character who is smarter than everyone else. Here, he plays a character who is slightly out of it. He's not quite on the same page with everyone else. Bates does her usual oddball characterization. Nobody does this kind of role better than she does. The hot tub scene with Bates and Nicholson has to be seen to be believed. Director Alexander Payne ("Election") makes excellent use of scenes with no dialogue and minimal sound. This forces the viewer to think about Schmidt's situation a lot more than one usually does in a comedy. This is a very funny, but also a very touching film. It rates an A.
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