Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), an Insurance actuary for Woodsmen Insurance, sits patiently waiting in his featureless and colourless office, surrounded by cardboard boxes, as the office clock inexorably ticks towards 5:00pm.
Even if nothing was known about the movie, audiences would instinctively know this is the last time Schmidt will be in this office. The last time he will work and that his very life force and reason for being will be taken from him, as he leaves the building.
After 42 years Schmidt is replaced by a younger “Cocky Bastard” who of course no longer needs his help. Indeed, his extensive actuary work is piled outside next to the trash, when he visits the office, as told to do, in case any loose ends need to be tied.
Helen (June Squibb) his wife of some 40 years asks how he got on at the office and he responds that he was able to help them with some tricky details. It’s that kind of relationship, delusion supported by a partner who very kindly doesn’t want to know any different.
Nicholson is here forcibly separated from almost any mannerism that you would normally identify him with. Without his bag of acting tricks, he does what we know he can do anyway. Holds the whole movie together with a performance that is both desperately, sad, believable & underpinned with an inner rage that gets nowhere near the surface.
Despite finding virtually every habit of his wife annoying, he is forced to revaluate his whole life following a tragedy that is as realistic as it is touching.
What he finds he is not what he had hoped for.
His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is marrying no hoper Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), who sells beds, of the water filled variety. This is the sort of guy who would try and pitch a pyramid scheme to you on the worst day of your life. He is not a bad man, just not want Schmidt wanted for his daughter.
To break out of his torpor, Schmidt decides on a road trip in the 35 foot Winnebago “Adventurer” bought during better times. Prior to the trip he, un-characteristically, starts to financially god parent a child in Tanzania, which provides a method for the audience to hear his thoughts as he pens rambled details of his life to a 6 year old orphan who can neither read nor write.
The road trip is planned to get him to his daughters wedding and along the way we learn more about him, what his life is like and will be like in the future. Randall’s mother, Roberta (Kathy Bates) puts him up and treats him as part of the extended dysfunctional family. Schmidt is unsure whether this is necessarily a good thing and runs for the Winnegabo when he realises that being accepted into the family extends to naked hot tub sessions with Roberta.
The movie hinges on his father of the bride wedding speech. His chance to say what he feels but he knows deep down how much it would hurt everyone, including the daughter he loves but has all but lost. In the end, he subjugates his own feelings and needs to the “greater good” i.e. everyone else. He knows how to do this well, he has been doing it all his life.
A well played, thoughtful and serious drama (from the Director of “Election”) which some may find downbeat. There are certainly few moments of humour, black or otherwise. The performances are universally good with Nicholson barely, if ever, off the screen. Whilst not wanting or expecting a Hollywood ending, an audience might reasonably expect a few more rays of hope than the ambiguous ending given.