What makes About Schmidt, directed and cowritten by Alexander Payne and adapted (very loosely) from the 1996 novel by Louis Begley, so extraordinary is how ordinary its tale is; it's a gray picture about gray people looking for some kind of meaning in their gray lives. People who take pleasure from the smallest of victories and find solace in the unlikeliest of places (except for Kathy Bates' hot tub). People who, in place of meaning and morals, find only that the struggle to devote their lives to something is pretty much all there is. Payne, director of Citizen Ruth and Election, makes Hollywood movies that play more like your own home movies: Somewhere in each of his pictures, you will recognize someone you know, someone who looks or acts or wants or aches just like you.
About Schmidt also plays like a grown-up, soured version of Punch-Drunk Love: Nicholson, like Adam Sandler in Paul Thomas Anderson's movie, finds that his spirit (his anger, really) has curdled into an overwhelming, unnamable sadness. Schmidt and Barry Egan could be the same man -- someone who wants to be more than he is but doesn't know why or how, someone who always looks a second away from breaking into a crying jag.
Nicholson barely moves here, barely even seems to breathe or blink or bend. He climbs out of bed as though his body turned into a mattress overnight, and what some might mistake for calm dignity is really the stiffness that comes from years of sitting in a chair and waiting for the clock to strike five. That's where we see Schmidt during the first moments of the film: The camera hovers over downtown Omaha (Payne's hometown and the setting of all his films) before depositing us in Schmidt's barren office, which is packed up and awaiting the next sucker.
Those who insist Payne paints patronizing portraits of his characters miss the point; Payne loves Nicholson's Schmidt with the same affection he bestowed upon Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth and Matthew Broderick in Election. They aren't clowns or fools or losers. Rather, these are people who have realized too late that their lives lack significance. Schmidt's is precisely the mundane, exasperating, unrewarding life lived by people who don't review movies for a living and therefore don't find deep meaning in hobbits and wizards. Schmidt is a Thoreau poster boy, one of the masses of men who lead lives of quiet desperation.
Yet for all Schmidt's stillness, there exists within him a torrent of furious rage, which he unleashes in his first letter to Ndugu. It's a hysterical moment but also one of overwhelming sadness; you crack a broad smile, even as your heart breaks for this guy. There is no razzle or dazzle in Payne's films. The laughs aren't broad, the tears aren't big, the people aren't special. Which is, of course, what makes them so very special after all.