Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt purports to be a comedy about “risk assessment.” When his wife of 42 years, Helen (June Squibb), keels over next to the vacuum cleaner, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) takes his Winnebago for a spin across the Midwest. A Childreach commercial narrated by Angela Lansbury provokes Schmidt to donate $22 a month to a starving African boy named Ndugu, and Schmidt’s letters to the boy are the director’s cheap excuse for a commentary track, but his protagonist’s self-centered voiceover also functions as a running gag. With every mention of “Dear Ndugu,” an otherwise ingratiating Nicholson invites laughter from the audience and succeeds in making light of the child’s predicament.
After his retirement, Schmidt grows to resent his wife’s presence (“Who is this old woman living inside my house?” he asks himself), but her death will restore his love for her, in spite of Payne denying him a moment’s peace with her memory. Upon discovering a shoebox full of love letters written to Helen by his best friend Ray (Len Cariou), Schmidt throws out his wife’s clothing and jewelry in a fit of rage, and after hunting Ray down and giving him a piece of his mind, the frazzled retiree seems to come around. Payne, though, continues to frustrate Schmidt’s chance at peace-of-mind. For example, as Schmidt leaves a message of apology on his friend’s answering machine, an automated operator dutifully cuts him off.
During the film’s most tender moment, Schmidt toasts to his daughter and son-in-law’s future not because he approves of his daughter’s choice in a husband but because he knows that she will not love him without his approval. Honest, yes, but even this act of faith is a self-aggrandizing one. If Payne’s snide sense of humor went hand-in-hand with Election‘s political context, here it condescends to the Midwest pastoral. When Schmidt arrives in Denver, he stays at the home of his daughter’s future mother-in-law (Kathy Bates). When he looks out the window at a man throwing out his garbage, it’s unsurprising that the man is overweight, half-dressed, and in obvious need of a shower. The whole of the film is pieced together from such tacky disdain. (Among Payne’s whipping posts: water beds, mullets, and Bates’s sagging breasts.) Schmidt is a credible creation yet Payne’s contempt runs synonymous to that of his native son’s. Schmidt shows nothing but scorn for the world around him and expects love in return. Ndugu promises fulfillment but Schmidt’s young “other” is a mere afterthought to his legacy of hate.