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“About Schmidt”

Retirement is anything but blissful for Schmidt. First, he faces boredom, then tragedy. Finally, he takes control, and he hits the road in his RV. This “road picture” focuses on Schmidt as he travels across country hoping to discover or manufacture a meaning and purpose for his life.

If one theme occurred most often in 2002’s best films, it was desperation. Over and over again, filmgoers were treated to stories of people living desperate lives and seeking change, affirmation and meaning. “The Good Girl,” “Lovely and Amazing,”” 8 Mile,” “Igby Goes Down,” “One Hour Photo,” “Changing Lanes” and “Far From Heaven” all dealt with characters living desperate lives.   

The end of 2002 saw one more film about desperation—”About Schmidt.” This incredible film is now gaining wider release across the country. 

“About Schmidt” opens on the last workday of a retiring executive. The audience joins him in watching the final seconds tick down. Then they accompany this executive, Warren Schmidt, and his wife as they attend his retirement banquet. This banquet sets up all that will follow.   

Retirement is anything but blissful for Schmidt. First, he faces boredom, then tragedy. Finally, he takes control, and he hits the road in his RV. This “road picture” focuses on Schmidt as he travels across country hoping to discover or manufacture a meaning and purpose for his life.   

There is humor and sadness. There are revelations and awkward moments of confusion. There are predictable outcomes and unexpected plot twists. “Schmidt” has one of the best screenplays of the year, if not the best. All the jokes succeed because they are based in real life. The emotional moments work for the same reason.   

The greatest strength of this film is the honesty and truth of its script. There are simple moments, like what kind of potato chips one prefers, or what one notices at a funeral, that echo experiences most Americans have shared. There are also powerful images that serve as subtle reminders for Schmidt and for the audience that life passes quickly.  

“About Schmidt” will receive an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, and it will be well deserved. 

The screenplay is so strong that it probably could have worked with any actor in the lead. Fortunately for movie fans though, Jack Nicholson took on the role. Nicholson is often criticized for playing the same character too often. This is not standard Nicholson. As in 2001’s underrated “The Pledge,” Nicholson becomes a character unlike anyone he has played before.   

His work here should be honored with his fourth Oscar, tying him with Katharine Hepburn for the most acting Oscars awarded to one individual. Kathy Bates also does some impressive work in a supporting role, along with many others in this near perfect cast. Ultimately though, “Schmidt” is a solo performance, with Nicholson crowning a vast and exceptional career with a work of subtle genius. 

If “American Beauty” is “the” film for mid-life crisis, then “About Schmidt” deserves a place alongside “Beauty” as “the” film for post-career crisis. How many people reach retirement and look back on their career and their life wondering what they have accomplished?   

Some may say that the closing moments of “Schmidt” are too simple or even a cliché. Ultimately, those moments are not simple at all; they, like much of this superb film, are true. They reflect a truth that all people, from those just entering the work force to those nearing retirement, need to hear.   

Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta. 

MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief nudity

Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Cast: Warren Schmidt: Jack Nicholson; Jeannie: Hope Davis; Randall Hertzel: Dermot Mulroney; Helen Schmidt: June Squibb; Roberta Hertzel: Kathy Bates; Larry: Howard Hesseman; Christina Belford: Christine Belford.