I resolved to watch more of director Alexander Payne's films after seeing The Descendants. Both films concern self-discovery, and both involve the discovery of a wife's adultery and the death of the wife.
Jack Nicholson has in earlier films portrayed rebels or other kinds of outsiders, and he's very much an outsider in About Schmidt, although as an actuary in a large insurance company (in Payne's home town Omaha, Nebraska) he's conformed to the work ethos all his working life. But now he's retired he has to confront himself, and he soon discovers his alienation, and his alienation from himself in particular, as he doesn't know who he is. And because he doesn't know who he is he has nowhere to go – not even inside himself, as he lacks interiority.
So it's hardly surprising that the double whammy of retirement swiftly followed by the death of his wife of more than forty years comes as an existential crisis: work has shielded him from knowing himself for decades, and his wife has taken care of things outside work: take these two rocks away and the self crumbles.
Schmidt is a likeable character though – his sponsoring of the six-year-old Ndugu from Tanzania stems from genuine empathy, but also conveniently provides the audience with a voiceover that reveals his thoughts as he reads out the letters he either writes to the child or plans to write to him; these are also a kind of therapy.
Schmidt's self-deception is pathetic: he tells himself he can dissuade his daughter from marrying her waterbed salesman boyfriend; he mistakes the concern for his welfare by the wife of another Winnebago owner as romantic; he fools himself that two students in the refectory of his alma mater are interested in his conversation, etc.
He not only lies to himself but to others – he tells his wife he's helped his successor out at work when the new guy on the contrary seems pretty self-sufficient; he distorts the truth to Ndugu to make himself appear less of a failure; but more successfully, he lies absolutely at his daughter's wedding reception by praising the groom and his vulgar, dysfunctional (but friendly) family and so avoids a potentially messy situation; but on the way back he rehearses a letter to Ndugu in which he calls his son-in-law a 'nincompoop'.
It's not easy confronting yourself, but it's even less easy when you mask the truth from yourself by self-deception, and shovel all the blame onto other people. Anyway, he has no self respect, so how can he climb out of the hole he's dug for himself? And all this time he's been writing (or thinking about writing) about his problems to a six-year-old therapist who can't even read or write. It's hardly surprising that – helpless, friendless – he breaks down crying at the end.
But we still feel sorry for him, and we identify with his problems. That must say a hell of a lot both about Payne's direction and Nicholson's acting.