About Schmidt begins methodically by showing the Woodman of the World Insurance Building standing erect in the gray Omaha skyline, each painstakingly framed, static shot emphasizing the building's forceful and inescapable nature. Inside we find Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a 66-year-old actuary just minutes from retirement. His life's work is piled beside him in coffin-like boxes unceremoniously labeled "schmidt archives." His life screams impotence. Not the kind of impotence cured by little blue pills, but the figurative kind when you discover you aren't remotely close to being the man you hoped and dreamed to be in youth. Instead, all you're left with is the ability to take unsentimental stock of your own eventual mortality. Warren's inventory includes Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years, whom he is quickly growing to hate, and his only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is marrying a mullet-coiffed dullard named Randall (Dermott Mulroney).
With his retirement shaping up as an exercise in lost opportunity, Schmidt buys a friend in a six-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, after watching an infomercial for Save the Children. Soon after receiving a letter from the organization asking him to write some personal information to his newly adopted son, Warren begins to churn out all his pent-up frustration about his life bound by conformity and a lifeless routine. Speaking of lifeless, while Warren is dropping off a letter to Ndugu and grabbing a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen, Helen drops dead. As he mourns, Warren discovers letters revealing Helen's affair with his best friend, Roy (Len Cariou). All his illusions shattered, Warren takes to the road in his new RV with a singular mission—to stop Jeannie from marrying Randall in hopes of saving her from the same mediocrity and boredom that have overtaken his own life. In the end, all Schmidt has left is a steady diet of despair. No matter how much he tries, there is not enough lifetime left to escape the decades invested in his indolent fate.
Director Alexander Payne crafts a tale combining humor and serious issues with a subtlety and grace rarely seen these days in Hollywood films. But his greatest accomplishment is his having gotten Nicholson to forgo his Nicholsonisms—the smirks and "Here's Johnny!" trickery—to play Schmidt with a sincerity that exudes human frailty, fragility, and a true vulnerability.
About Schmidt isn't a hopeful film, but in my opinion, despite how some may interpret the ending, it is a heartbreaking and serious look at a man who can't escape the fact that his life is ordinary. Some moviegoers may find the film too long, even boring, but I believe its pacing is a stroke of genius on Payne's part. With it, he illustrates the meandering desperation of a man trying to find some sort of meaning from life. As in his previous masterpiece, Election, which is taut and fast-paced, Payne plays to the material at hand.
The picture quality through my system was pretty clean, with only some minor grain in places. The film's tones are intentionally muted to reflect the bleakness of Schmidt's life. Both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks are included. I preferred the DD, which sounded a bit warmer. There aren't many hardcore surround effects, so the surround speakers were used primarily for ambient effects and music, but the dialogue sounded crystal-clear through the center channel.
The extras are standard fare, with the exception of an alternate opening scene and an entertaining featurette, Perceptions of the Film from the Editorial Staff. There are nine deleted scenes, which always give you a greater appreciation of the craft of editing. The movie trailer is also included. Overall, this DVD is highly recommended.—AM