Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) spent the final few minutes of his employment staring at the seconds ticking by on his office clock, then when it reached five, he got up, switched his light off and left the building. He had worked for an insurance company for most of his life, and made his way up the executive ladder to a position somewhere near the middle, so when he had to leave it all behind he found his existence growing emptier by the day. The respect he was shown at his retirement party didn't make up for the fact that he now had nothing to do, no real interests, no close friends, and a wife (June Squibb) who was more part of the furniture than a life partner. But now was the perfect time to change...
Except that change is not something to be taken lightly, especially when it's forced upon you as happens to Warren when his wife dies within a short time of him leaving his job. This was one of those keenly observed Alexander Payne comedy dramas, with the drama element most obvious to those watching rather than to those making it, and provided Nicholson with one of his last great roles that surprised some audiences who knew him from chewing the scenery in his later performances and were not so familiar with his excellent serious work. This only bolstered the film's cult following among movie buffs who were pleased to see the old man had lost none of his talent.
Warren is a very identifiable figure, and you may find yourself recognising aspects of his personality in other men of a certain age of your acquaintance. With nobody to really relate to, he finds solace in writing to the Tanzanian orphan he has been moved to sponsor after having his conscience pricked by a TV ad, thereby spilling his guts out to a little boy who he doesn't realise will have no idea what he is writing to him about. But Warren has bigger problems than that, as once his wife has gone he finds himself trying to coax his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) out of her upcoming nuptials to a well-meaning but in Warren's eyes utterly beneath her salesman, Randall (Dermot Mulroney).
It's true that the characters Warren meets on his subsequent journey are broadly drawn, but this is the way that he sees them, whereas Payne ensures that as we watch with a measure of distance from the action we can see that he may be right that the family of Randall are not his kind of people, but they are loving and vital in a manner that this uptight geezer can never be. In the middle of this is a road movie as Schmidt sets out from his home in Nebraska in the Winnebago that he bought to please his wife, all with the express urge to stop the wedding in its tracks, and along the way learn something about himself. Except it could be main thing he learns is that he is very much stuck being himself, and is probably too advanced in years to alter his course now.
If this is sounding depressing, Nicholson's knack for bringing out Warren's politely concealed horror at not only those he meets but his own situation makes for a gem of a performance. It's true that as a comedy this is too heavy-footed to be a laugh riot, so you may fall back on indulgent chuckles for much of the time, but the characters are so neatly observed that you do warm to them. Kathy Bates brightens up the later stages as Randall's mother Roberta, an old hippie with two failed marriages behind her (you can almost hear Warren cringing internally when he meets her) who gets up to such mischief as offering him the waterbed in her home to sleep on, which gives him a painful crick in his neck, and sharing a hot tub with him while she is naked and he is terrified. The film ends up feeling sympathy for all the characters because we may see them at their everyday underachieving ordinariness, but we also see them at their everyday best, and the final moments when it hits Warren that he may have nobody to listen to him and probably never did, but he has made a small, beneficial difference, are quite sweet. Music by Rolfe Kent.
American writer/director of offbeat comedy drama. Payne's first film was the abortion satire Citizen Ruth, but it was 1999's acclaimed, Oscar-nominated satire Election brought the director to prominence. The affecting road movie About Schimdt showcased one of Jack Nicholson's best ever performances, while 2004's Sideways gained Payne yet more awards and acclaim. Seven years later came the Hawaii-set follow up, The Descendants, which was similarly lauded, then shortly afterwards the multi-Oscar-nominated and expertly judged Nebraska.