Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) sits at his desk as though he was standing at attention during a full-dress inspection. As he watches the clock move from 4:58 to 5:00, he is as clenched as a fist.
It is Warren’s last day on the job as an actuary for the appropriately-named Woodman insurance company. He has coped with a life of disappointment and emptiness through rigidity. He is stingy with words, money, and emotion. He does not confide in anyone but us, the audience and a little boy in Africa he “adopted” by agreeing to send him $22 a month. When Schmidt tells us that he looks over at his wife and wonders who that old woman is, we know that when he looks in the mirror he wonders who that old man is, too.
Schmidt’s daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is getting married to Randall, a man with a mullet who sells waterbeds (Dermot Mulroney), and this is just one more in a series of disappointments. When Schmidt’s wife dies, and then when he finds out that she was keeping a secret from him, he becomes completely unstuck from his moorings. He may have hated his life before, but at least he knew what he was supposed to do and had the luxury of blaming someone else for everything he did not like. His only satisfaction – that of playing by a set of rules he understood and supported in theory – now seems foolish. He takes the huge motor home his wife made him buy and sets off in it toward his daughter’s house. And in the grandest tradition of story-telling, it is a journey that is both physical and psychological.
He plans to try to stop the wedding, but after a lifetime of going along with other people’s rules, he has no idea of how to proceed. The best he can do is make a weak protest to his daughter, who lets him know that his support is much more valuable to her than his advice.
Nicholson is mesmerizing. His Schmidt is funny, irritating, pitiable, and utterly heartbreaking. Kathy Bates, as Randall’s mother, is magnificent in a performance that is full-bodied (in both senses of the word). The details of middle American ceremonies – the retirement party, the funeral, the wedding – are all just right, sharply observed but affectionate.
Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language and sexual references and situations, including adultery. Characters drink and smoke. There are tense and sad family scenes that may upset some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Schmidt confided in a little boy he had never met instead of any of his friends or family. What do you think he will do next? What should he do? What should he have done that would have made him happier?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Harry and Tonto with an Oscar-winning performance by Art Carney.