A strong perf by Jack Nicholson in the title role leads this dramedy concerning the dull lives of dull people. The movie raises some disturbing themes, but sabotages itself with its overly mocking tone.
The pic opens with about to retire Omaha, Nebraska actuary Warren Schmidt watching the clock move toward 5:00, as his last day winds down. A retirement party follows, and his best friend Ray (Len Cariou) toasts him, calling him a “very rich man,” based on his great family, his significant career, and those who love and respect him. If only…
It soon becomes clear that Warren is unhappy with Helen (June Squibb), his wife of 42 years, his daughter’s fiancé, and retirement life in general. To make matters worse, although he was sure that his old company would still need his sage advice, his replacement can’t be bothered with him, and as he leaves the office for the last time, he notices that all his files are in the trash.
On a whim, he answers a TV ad requesting donations to a children’s charity, and ends up sponsoring a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu (for $22 a month). The organization’s materials soon arrive in the mail, and encourage him to write to his new foster son, and write he does. His letters, read in voice-over by Nicholson, become an important narrative device for the rest of the film.
The first letter, surprisingly personal in content, decries his old age, his wife, and the fiancé. Meanwhile, Helen’s behavior is both banal and minimally responsive, especially in an all too brief conversation they have regarding his misgivings about the fiancé. The best that Helen can muster is a simpering/nasty “Well my father didn’t think much of you at first, either.” She’s even trained him to urinate sitting down, to keep the bathroom tidy.
Not to worry, though. Helen drops dead, and we get to meet the daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis, looking as plain as plum pudding) and her intended Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney, sporting a mullet) as they arrive from Denver for the funeral. Randall, a waterbed salesman, is every bit as much of a nincompoop as Warren has stated, but Jeannie–sullen, selfish, arrogant, ungrateful, and obnoxious–could only be the favorite of a delusional father who had long written off the other female in his life, namely Helen.
Warren would like Jeannie to stay for a while, but her job and wedding plans are far too important. Heck, she can’t wait to leave. Randall is at least more outwardly polite, but with Helen not yet cold in the grave, can’t resist telling Warren about a “ground floor opportunity.”
Schmidt pines around the house for a few days, and starts going through Helen’s things, only to discover a number of love letters, written to her by his friend Ray! Demonstrating anger for the only time in the movie, he dumps the contents of her closet into a charity bin, and confronts Ray. Ray expresses surprise that she would have kept the letters this long, as the affair occurred 25 or more years ago. This reply doesn’t exactly help, since she DID keep the letters, and the relationship occurred during the prime of their married life.
With that, Warren takes off in the Winnebago his wife forced him to buy for their retirement time together. Since the wedding is only a couple of weeks away, he calls Jeannie at work, offering his services to help with the arrangements. Jeannie’s “important job” is then revealed to be a shipping clerk, and she can’t get him off the phone fast enough. In the one sarcastic moment he has, he asks her if it’s still OK for him to keep sending her the monthly checks (no doubt a whole lot more than $22). By now, the audience is beginning to feel sorry for old Warren, but there’s more to come.
The scene finally shifts to Denver, and we meet the greatly eccentric Hertzel family, fronted (and I do mean fronted) by aging oversexed hippie matriarch Roberta (Kathy Bates), her windbag ex Larry (Howard Hesseman) and Randall’s perpetually stoned brother Duncan (Mark Venhuizen). After gently trying to talk Jeannie out of the marriage, Warren is put up in Randall’s old room, where his childhood trophies and ribbons are on display. All of them read “participant.” Maybe the only thing he has won in his whole life is Jeannie.
Plagued by a stiff back, but cured with Roberta’s Percodan, Warren makes it through the wedding rehearsal and the wedding. Bewildered by the experiences, and hurt to the core, he stifles an urge to tell the party how he really feels, and heads back to Omaha. All the while, the urbane audience can feel smugly superior to these Midwest rubes, and therein lies the essence of director Alexander Payne’s overpraised comedic talents. Even Nicholson is in on the joke, as he is really a hip Hollywood actor merely impersonating this loser. You can’t avoid thinking that there’s no way that Jack would take up with a woman as old as Helen–he known to hang-out with, and according to Joe Eszterhas, sometimes beat-up much younger chicks.
Feeling betrayed, he finds a letter back at his house from Ndugu, or actually from a nun who cares for him. Included with the letter is a crude drawing of a child holding hands with a man. Warren quietly weeps as the film ends with deus ex machina sentimentality.
I can just hear Rod Serling…”Schmidt the actuary, was an expert on life expectancy, but didn’t get what he expected from life. Yet, he was just smart enough to realize that his life was as empty as those around him–those blissfully ignorant enough to not notice.” Poignant themes, to be sure, yet buried in a mocking freak show designed for cheap laughs.