The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.
About Schmidt 
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Jim Taylor, Alexander Payne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, Kathy Bates
Running Time: 125 minutes
Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is a man who has lost everything. At the age of 67, he has retired from his long-held position as an actuary at a prominent Omaha insurance company. Without work in his life, he has too much free time and doesn’t know what to do with it all. He starts to notice little things about his wife (June Squibb) of 42 years that bug him now more than ever — her incessant need to collect ceramic figurines, in particular, really gets under his skin. When he comes home to find her lying face down in the kitchen, dead, he seems oddly calm about it (at least on the outside).
Schmidt is also in the process of losing his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is engaged to be married to a waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Warren rarely sees her as it is (she lives several hours away in Denver, Colorado), and now he’s worried he will never get to spend any time with her. It’s as if everything is slipping through his grasp all at once.
When his daughter turns down his idea of visiting weeks before her wedding, Warren decides to take a road trip in his newly-purchased RV instead. He visits places from his childhood, all within the Midwest, only to find that everything is different. With all of this change in his life, Schmidt’s only form of solace is writing letters to a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy whom he sponsors via the Plan USA foster program. Amusingly, Warren writes these letters as if he were speaking to an adult. In essence, they are a form of therapy for him. He rambles on about many different subjects, basically jotting down whatever thoughts are flowing through his head. These moments give us glimpses into his mindset, humanizing what on the outside appears to be just a grumpy old bastard.
It’s perfect then that Jack Nicholson breathes life into this emotionally-barren character. This isn’t the type of performance we would expect from Jack; he is not loud or wildly animated. In fact, he is rather subdued and he plays Warren with a certain amount of sadness. Schmidt is the perfect encapsulation of the company man, someone who has devoted their whole life to work when he is simply just a cog in the machine. When he retires, someone takes his place and things move on as if nothing changed. It’s depressing, really, but that’s how things go.
Warren’s interactions with those he meets on his journey (and later, in Denver) are priceless. He befriends a married couple at an RV park, but that leads to disastrous results when he picks up the wrong kind of signal from the wife. When he arrives in Denver, he struggles to bond with the new in-laws. Randall’s mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates), is the exact opposite of Schmidt. Her freewheeling attitude and extroverted behavior makes him very uncomfortable, though at the same time it seems to bring him ever so slightly out of his shell.
There is humor in the film — mostly in the form of the eccentric people we meet along the way — but it would be erroneous to label this as strictly a comedy. Although Warren is a flawed man, by the end of the film we finally learn more about who he really is. About Schmidt proves that self-discovery is possible at any age, and it shows just how much fun (and emotional) this journey can be.