It's easy to presume that About Schmidt isn't much of a movie, since its protagonist, Warren Schmidt, isn't much of anything. He's portrayed by Jack Nicholson, but the actor is actually someone who looks as if he used to be Jack Nicholson. This Warren, this rinky-dink actuary banished to the wasteland of retirement, can't possibly be the same man who was once George Hanson, Jake Gittes, Randle Patrick McMurphy, Jimmy Hoffa, and the Joker; he's too shrunken, too insignificant to himself and to everyone else -- even his own family. "I can't believe it's really me," he shruggingly admits, poring over a face lined with wrinkles, a head barely obscured by an absurd comb-over, ears overflowing with wild hairs, ankles wrapped in varicose veins. Warren says he used to believe "destiny tapped me to be a great man," but now, in his mid-60s, he's merely a lonely man, an invisible man -- a nowhere man.
Throughout the course of the film, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne and adapted (very, very loosely) from the 1996 novel by Louis Begley, Warren will learn almost nothing, become nothing special. He will lose his wife Helen (Jane Squibb) to a sudden heart attack, but that's just as well; he can no longer stand the sight of the "old woman" who lives in his house, who makes him piss sitting down. He will lose his whining, wan daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to a mulleted, waterbed-selling putz with go-nowhere, pyramid-scheme plans (Dermot Mulroney). He will lose his job, his best friend (after discovering that decades earlier, said friend had a brief affair with Helen), his dignity, his temper -- perhaps even his mind. And when all is said and done, he will still have nothing -- only his empty home, his empty life, and a six-year-old African orphan named Ndugu to whom Warren sends $22 a month and bitter, heartbreaking letters explaining to him (and us) just how and why he's such a failure.
What makes About Schmidt so extraordinary is how ordinary its tale is; it's a gray picture about gray people looking for some kind of meaning in their gray lives. They will take pleasure from the smallest of victories and find solace in the unlikeliest of places (except for Kathy Bates's hot tub), and in the end, they will find no meaning or morals -- only that the struggle to devote their lives to something meaningful is pretty much all they've got. Payne, director of Citizen Ruth and Election, makes Hollywood movies that play more like your own home movies: Somewhere in each of his pictures, you will recognize someone you know, someone who looks or acts or wants or aches just like you.
About Schmidt plays almost like a grown-up version of Punch-Drunk Love, after its love has soured and waned: Nicholson, like Adam Sandler in Paul Anderson's movie, finds that his spirit (his anger, really) has curdled into an overwhelming, unnamable sadness. Warren and Barry Egan are the same man, more or less -- someone who wants to be more than he is, but doesn't know why or how, and always looks a second away from breaking into a crying jag. Two actors best known for playing big and broad so withdraw into themselves, they become mere mortals; they look tiny on the large screen and seem lost in a world that completely ignores them. Nicholson barely moves here, barely even seems to breathe or blink or bend. He climbs out of bed as if his body has turned into a mattress overnight, and what some might mistake for a man moving with calm dignity is no more than someone wrought stiff from years of sitting in a chair and waiting for the clock to strike five. That's where we see Warren during the very first moments of the film: The camera hovers over downtown Omaha (Payne's hometown and the setting of all his films) and deposits us in Warren's barren office, which is packed up and waiting for the next sucker.
Those who insist that Payne paints patronizing portraits of his characters miss the point; Payne loves Warren with the same affection he bestowed upon Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth and Matthew Broderick in Election. They aren't clowns or fools or even losers -- merely people who've realized too late that their lives are no more significant than drops of rain in the Sahara. Warren's is precisely the mundane, exasperating, unrewarding life lived by people who don't review movies for a living and don't find Deep Meaning in hobbits and wizards. He's the Thoreau poster boy, one of the masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation. For all his stillness, there exists within him a torrent of furious rage, which he unleashes in his first letter to Ndugu. It's a hysterical moment, but also one of overwhelming sadness; you crack a broad smile, even as your heart breaks for this guy. There is no razzle or dazzle in Payne's films: The laughs aren't broad, the tears aren't big, the people aren't special. Which is, of course, what makes them so very special, after all.