This film is about Warren Schmidt, a Nebraskan in his mid sixties, who is newly retired from his job as assistant vice president for an insurance firm. He is clearly a man who is not in touch with his feelings or his life, living it by the book, so to speak. He is disconnected from the reality around him, living as unobtrusively as he can. This is evident right from the beginning of the film.
His life really begins when he retires, as a series of life jarring changes occur. His wife of forty two years, Helen (June Squibb), suddenly dies. She is a domineering woman whom he loved on some level but for whom he was unable to express much feeling while she was still living, even though there were many things about her that irritated him.
Their only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), lives in Denver, Colorado and is about to get married to Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), a dimwitted, waterbed salesman whom Schmidt cannot abide. He learns some truths about the real status of his own relationship with his daughter, Jeannie, and it is not the idealized relationship that he thought he had. In fact, he learns just how disconnected he is from his daughter, who is really a veritable stranger to him, as was his wife. Moreover, not even his best friend, Ray (Lou Cariou), was whom Schmidt thought him to be.
When Schmidt travels to Colorado for the wedding, he stays with the groom's mother, Roberta Hertzel, a much married, earthy, and passionate divorcee, who is comfortable with herself and not afraid to express her feelings. She is a sort of flower child/earth mother holdover from the late nineteen sixties, early seventies.
Lacking an emotional connection with any other human being, Schmidt sponsors a six year old, Tanzanian child through a charitable agency, and begins sending him letters, detailing his life as he sees it. It is more of a catharsis for Schmidt, rather than an attempt at real communication with a child. This contrivance also serves to tell the viewer just how Schmidt perceives his life. When he receives a letter with something the child has sent him, the idea that someone has actually thought of him opens the emotional floodgates for Schmidt and unleashes all those repressed feelings of anger, sadness, loss, pain, suffering, in one fell swoop.
Jack Nicholson gives an excellent performance as the repressed Midwesterner who only begins to get in touch with his feelings the end of his life spectrum. He gives a good account of a man who is making his way in, what is for him, uncharted territory. Funny, poignant and sad, it is a performance that is well nuanced. June Squibb is perfectly cast in the role of the Helen, Schmidt's wife. Her apple cheeked countenance and dumpy, matronly look exemplify the stereotypic senior citizen housewife. Helen's penchant for order and cleanliness is brought home by Ms. Squibb's performance.
Kathy Bates is wonderful as the somewhat bohemian, earth mother figure in the film. Her much talked about nude scene was natural and in keeping with her role. I applaud her courage in doing it, given the emphasis on thinness in Hollywood. While many reviled her for doing it, hers is a much more realistic reflection of what the body of a woman in her fifties or sixties actually looks like. Let me tell you, Jack Nicholson's body doesn't look much better either, but he was not reviled for it. There still continues to be a double standard for men and women, when it comes to excess avoirdupois.
Dermot Mulroney is terrific as the sensitive, easy going groom to be who seems to lack the full quid. Mulroney makes his character quite a likable one. Unfortunately, Hope Davis, as Jeannie Schmidt, serves to make her character a thoroughly unpleasant one. It is unclear, however, whether this was the intended effect. Howard Hesseman is wonderful as the groom's father, Larry Hertzel, and he gets a lot of mileage out of this bit part. Lou Cariou is excellent as Schmidt's erstwhile best friend, Ray.
All in all, this a film well worth watching. The baby boomers out there should take note. It is still not too late to avoid ending up like Schmidt.