The exact genesis of a movie can only be guessed at since these things are not publicized and, in fact, get buried in the many layers of contributors as a production is developed. My guess about this one is that it's "The Straight Story" redux. In that 1999 surprise hit, an ageing bachelor, Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth, growing older and lonelier, makes his way across the country against significant odds on a John Deere tracter. The fact that this subject matter could be a hit opened some eyes. We think it laid the groundwork for this saga, adapted from a novel by Louis Begley, about a 60 year-old, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson).
At least the filmmakers avoid being called copycats by not titling it "The Schmidt Story".
Groundwork also included convincing a big star like Nicholson to imagine it could work for him. He's not getting the scripts a younger Nicholson threw in the wastebasket. Clearly, he felt like doing it and probably saw its potential in creating another tone poem of exploration along the highways and byways paralleling those amber waves of grain. But, the earlier film was about a man's triumph over ageing; this one's about a man defeated by it. It's soft, it's quiet, it's gentle, it's glacially paced, it's boring.
To set up the adventure, Warren Schmidt, recently retired, is severely hen-pecked by a dominating but doting wife of 42 years. His escape is to his desk where he goes through the mail. There he falls victim to an appeal from a charity organization called Childreach for sponsors of African orphans. Schmidt decided to contribute to an orphan named Ndugu. Sending a check is not enough, however, for his real need is to connect with someone, so he writes the needy waif a letter telling him about his new foster parent, himself, a means to establish an identity apart from his wife that he imagines meaningful to at least one other soul.
But Schmidt's need for a separate identity is more fully realized when his wife suffers a sudden stroke, leaving him a widower with a house and a very large Winnebago parked in the driveway (his wife's idea). He also has Jeannie, his rather gloomy daughter (Hope Davis) who lives in Denver and is about to marry Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), a Fu-Manchu-mustached simpleton Schmidt considers a nincompoop. At every opportunity, like when she comes to Omaha for her mother's funeral, Schmidt tries to talk her out of the marriage, an effort that seems to be the peak of his motivational stimulation.
His contributions and narrated letters to Ndugu become a continuous stream of internal monologues as he takes off in his traveling home to Denver and Jeannie's wedding. The voice-over narration provides a way for a lone character to "talk" and explain his thoughts and actions. It seems also a device to invest meaningless meanderings among unengaging people with some kind of virtuous quality. The attempt fails, but it provides a humanistic ending to the humdrum events that constitute Schmidt's lethargic life and utter lack of passion or ambition.
The ultimate set piece and emotional high point is Schmidt's over-the-top outburst to Jeannie virtually demanding she put the wedding off, followed by his speech, as the father of the bride, at the wedding.
What we are left with, finally, is an empty, defeated man whose way of filling out his remaining days is of no interest at all.
If writer-director Alexander Payne ("Election", "Citizen Ruth") wanted to create a world of average folks in which his hero barely stands out, he succeeded. But the product itself is below average because what we look for in movies is something a bit above average, at least a slightly dramatized view of life, something to keep us in our seats.
Kathy Bates is, in this role, capable, as usual. Her Roberta Hertzel character seems to have been written to add some vigor to the flaccid level of action.
I used to be a big fan of Nicholson's but he hasn't shown me much since 1992 when he made, "Hoffa" and "A Few Good Men", preceded by his "Joker" in "Batman" (1989). The current popularity of this film might do something by way of reviving his star energy but it would be based on very little found here.
The Soundtrack Album