Your life. How do you want to be able to look back on it in your later years? What is the meaning of each and every compromise you've made?
Pursuing my mathematics degree, one of the careers often put forth was actuary. Believe me, it was brought across as a fairly cushy job - good salaries and the lowest rate of occupational stress around. Warren Schmidt has been an actuary almost his whole life, and risen to Vice President at Woodmen, an insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. And now he is retiring from that job, looking back on a life that has disappointed him.
Jack Nicholson is Schmidt, and while several minutes elapse before we hear him utter a word, we learn a lot just by watching him go through the last moments of his last day of work, and the subsequent retirement party. He holds the bearing of a man who finds he must endure something. And out of this last day, we feel decades of enduring life stretching into the past, that his life has not so much been lived as endured.
Great films echo great truths. The breaking of his daily habits allows Schmidt to take greater notice of his circumstances - the wife who continually gets on his nerves, the daughter who seems to have chosen the wrong man to marry, the too-young new vp who doesn't really need any help from the old guy. What is his place in the world now? What was it, even before now, when he went to work out of obligation and largely left the family decisions to his wife?
It seems like Schmidt has lived under the rules of "it's not that big a deal", where each minor affront has little meaning, but their cumulative weight on his soul is coming front and center. I'll leave most of the details of the plot out of this, but for one. Schmidt signs up for Childreach - the third world child sponsorship program advertised by Sally Struthers. The organization encourages him to write to his sponsored child, Ndugu. "Include personal details" they say. This, more than anything, spurs Schmidt on, to have some understanding of what he's going through. And it serves a dual purpose - we get to see better into his mind through a kind of narration that is inventive, interesting, and fun, but doesn't mire us down, or hit us over the head, like so many other film voiceovers these days.
Nicholson is tremendous, making this complex brooding character seem completely natural, almost like second nature. The subtleties of the performance prove the role's difficulty - few could have pulled this off, and you can bet nobody would have managed it quite like Jack. The supporting cast is perfect, providing counterpoint to Schmidt while still retaining individuality.
The script is a masterwork of truth. All films, to some extent, are manipulating the audience toward certain thoughts, emotions, or opinions. While About Schmidt is nearly perfect detail for detail, there are hardly any points where you can sense the script's inner workings. In the end, it's not whether you've been manipulated, it's whether you feel manipulated.
I want to pull out the stock "this film is not for everyone" paragraph here, but it simply doesn't fit. Mainly, I think some folk will just not want to deal with the themes of the film. It's slow, but well paced, befitting the subject matter - and I truly believe those who don't relate to it are merely choosing not to - some questions are fairly difficult to face.
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