Longtime Omaha, Nebraska resident Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is an ordinary old man who, finding himself retired and widowed, discovers that he had only defined himself by his job and his marriage. With them gone, he fears his life is meaningless. Eventually he decides on an impromptu road trip out to Denver, ostensibly to revisit the places of his past but actually to try to stop his only child (Hope Davis) from marrying a complete loser (Dermot Mulroney).
A very simple story that is perhaps too blunt about the life of a retired Nebraskan widower to be thoroughly entertaining by itself, About Schmidt is a testament to Jack Nicholson's star power. He is practically a one-man show here, playing against type and succeeding. There's no way you can avoid chuckling at that famous smirk and those pointed eyebrows, but the movie plays with our expectations of the actor more than once, aware that it takes someone as larger-than-life as Nicholson to make us interested in - and love - an otherwise boring old man.
Payne (with cowriter Jim Taylor, his collaborator on Citizen Ruth and Election) once again uses his hometown of Omaha as a representative of bleakest Middle America, and his take on modern Western life remains pointed, though it's far less savage and more bittersweet than its predecessors. For example, the wedding rehearsal dinner is held at a Tony Roma's. It's a funny gag until you realize that a lot of American families probably have their wedding rehearsal dinners at Tony Roma's too, and then it isn't that funny anymore.
The film is full of such quietly depressing moments that remind us, as they do Schmidt, that modern American life can seem empty and generic. But About Schmidt does have a healthy share of laughs, and a marvelous ending that redeems the two hours that preceded it, although by the time credits rolled most of my fellow audience members were walking out with an "Is that it?" look on their faces. But the film has stuck with me longer than I expected. It's always the quiet ones, isn't it?