About Schmidt Marks 20th Anniversary

Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt." Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

The Oscar-nominated About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson, marks the 20th anniversary of its theatrical release in 2002.

This is the first of two Jack Nicholson movies getting a milestone anniversary review in December. The other film is As Good As It Gets, celebrating 25 years on December 25. Anyway, it’s really hard to believe that About Schmidt is 20 years old this year. I can still remember watching the dramedy in theaters! As a film, it’s one of those that blurs the lines between comedy and drama. A certain organization nominated Nicholson for Best Actor in a Drama, which surprised him upon winning because he was of the belief that the film was a comedy.

The gist of the film is that Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) feels useless after retiring as an actuary at an Omaha insurance company. It’s not long after his retirement when he sees an ad on TV and decides to sponsor a foster child in Africa. After getting an information package, he starts sending off a number of letters in which he rambles about life to the child, Ndugu Umbo. You can’t help but feel for Warren as he wonders around looking for purpose in life. You know it’s bad when the life insurance company has placed the contents of his entire office in the garbage! I don’t know about you but I feel like this would trigger a depression.

Together with his wife, Helen (June Squibb), they buy a Winnebago Adventurer motor home. Unfortunately, Helen dies from a blood clot in her brain. Her funeral leads daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) and future son-in-law/waterbed salesman Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney) to arrive in town from Denver. Warren isn’t entirely on board with the wedding and is going to arrive early in hopes of stopping it. Jeannie makes it clear to her father that she doesn’t want him there until just before the wedding itself. It isn’t just that Warren and Helen were going through things but Warren is going to have to fight for it if he wants a future relationship with his daughter. As such, Warren decides to visit some of his old sites along the way.

When he finally arrives in Denver, he stays at the home of Randall’s mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates). He basically has culture shock by what he sees from Randall’s family. Warren and Roberta couldn’t be more different from each other. In the end, Warren delivers a toast at the wedding but he’s still putting on a show because he doesn’t believe in their marriage.

Jack Nicholson makes finding the character look easy and never gets too showy in the process. Performances like this one are a reminder of why he is an iconic screen legend and why it’s sad that we haven’t seen him in a leading role since How Do You Know in 2010. While it’s possible to imagine somebody else in the role, Nicholson makes the performance a thing of beauty. Warren Schmidt is not the nicest of guys and so it’s not that easy to root for him. Call him an unlikeable protagonist if you will–if the leading role were an unlikeable female protagonist, the film would need a warning at the start, much like in Not Okay earlier this year.

I didn’t know the history behind the film when I first watched it in 2002. While it’s an adaptation of a book, Alexander Payne had an idea (via the New Yorker) to “tell the story of an old guy who retires, and realizes how much he’s wasted his life, and wants somehow to start anew— The Graduate at age sixty-five.” There were problems with the script and so Payne moved onto another thing. He would ultimately go onto combine his script with some elements from Louis Begley’s About Schmidt novel. Payne kept the core of the book in adapting it for the screen. The film would also be the first in his career in which the filmmaker also had final cut.

Jack Nicholson delivers one of the best performances of his career in About Schmidt.

DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
SCREENWRITERS: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
CAST: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, and Kathy Bates

New Line Cinema released About Schmidt in theaters on December 13, 2022. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.