Nicholson portrays man at crossroads

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is at a crossroads in his life.
A newly ritired, 65-year-old insurance executive, Schmidt
cautiously looks as the clock hits 5 p.m. on the wall for his final
Friday.
Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is at a crossroads in his life. A newly ritired, 65-year-old insurance executive, Schmidt cautiously looks as the clock hits 5 p.m. on the wall for his final Friday.

Bored and confused Monday, his first day of retirement, Schmidt says goodbye to his wife Helen (June Squibb) and heads to the office, only to see his old office taken over by an anxious young buck, who escorts Schmidt to the doors. Feeling unwanted after a life of service, Warren Schmidt heads home.

The years have sailed by quickly, and the new-found time Schmidt has allows him to spend more time with Helen, his wife of 42 years, only to question how he could have married such an “old woman” in the first place. He questions if he even really knows the woman he has awakened to for more than two-thirds of his life.

To confuse matters even more, Warren and his wife, who live in Omaha, are trying to help their only daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who lives in Denver, plan and finance her wedding to Randall (Dermot Mulroney), whom Warren despises.

One day, Warren kisses Helen goodbye before heading around town to run some errands, and when he returns to their home the level of his love for her comes pouring to the surface as he finds her lifeless on the floor, holding the vacuum cleaner handle. Suddenly Warren, who had questioned his relationship with his wife, is overcome with how much love they actually shared and is devastated.

Tragedy brings Jeannie and Randall to Omaha for the funeral, which gives Warren the opportunity to express his displeasure for Jeannie’s future husband. Their communication is heartbreaking and hilarious as they try to balance the pain of death with the happiness associated with the upcoming wedding.

After the funeral, Jeannie and Randall head home only to be surprised by a phone call a few days later. It’s Warren, telling his daughter he misses her and is coming out a month early. He even tells her he wants to sell his house and move to Denver for good. Furious, Jeannie tells her dad to turn his motorhome around, head back to Omaha where he belongs and not to come to Denver until the planned three days before the wedding.

Warren longs for some human connection, so he writes a charity organization, wanting to sponsor and become a foster father for a young African boy named Ndugu after seeing an ad on television.

The letters Warren writes Ndugo are sweet, acrid and hilarious. As Warren tells his life story to the little boy, he starts to have an appreciation for life and wants to better himself. Supporting Ndugu with money halfway around the world fills Warren’s life with purpose and as he sets out for Jeannie’s wedding, he hopes to be received well by the new family.

The family is run by Randall’s foul-mouthed mother (Kathy Bates) and philosophical father (Howard Hesseman), who are divorced but vow to run the show, regardless of the fact that they can’t stand the sight or sound of each other. Hesseman and Bates, juxtaposed with the cool Nicholson, command some of the funniest screen moments of the year.

Alexander Payne is a filmmaker with wit and style oozing out of his pores, and his sense of social satire is deep. Following “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” “About Schmidt” continues Payne’s rise to the upper echelon of independent, unique minds working in mainstream film today.

ABOUT SCHMIDT. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, loosely based on the novel “About Schmidt,” by Louis Begley. With Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman. Rated R (nudity, course language), 105 minutes. Now playing at Bay Area theaters.

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