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. (Given that Nicholson schtups women half his age, if that, Squibb looks more like his mother.) 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' 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 ya 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 Thomas Anderson's movie, finds that his spirit (his anger, really) has curdled into an overwhelming, unnameable 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 that 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 turned into a mattress overnight, and what some might mistake for a man moving with calm dignity is no more than someone made 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 awaiting the next sucker.
Those who would insist Payne paints patronizing portraits of his characters miss the point; Payne loves Warren with the same affection he bestowed on Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth and Matthew Broderick in Election. They aren't clowns or fools or losers, even, merely people who've realized too late 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 a life 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.