Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, is a middle level officer in an Omaha insurance company who faces retirement and, shortly afterward, the sudden death of his wife of 42 years. He struggles with emotional chaos and mental confusion and with the nagging thought that his life is over and that he has failed to make the world better in any way.

An additional complication is that his only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), is planning to marry a man (Randall, played by Dermott Mulroney) Schmidt strongly feels is below her. He tries several times to prevent the marriage but fails at that, too. Returning home from the wedding in despair, Schmidt finds a piece of mail with a drawing made by a young boy in Tanzania he had begun to support just after he retired, and the final scene shows him deeply moved.


Much of this film is enormously sad, and thus would make a fine beginning to a discussion of ordinary grief and mourning. Schmidt has a hard time with retirement. His wife, his coworkers, and his friends try to cajole him out of his funk, but he is too far-gone, out over the abyss of meaninglessness. When his wife dies, he enters a second kind of mourning, surprised by the depth of his grief and his sentimental feelings about her belongings--until he discovers letters that reveal a decades-ago affair between his wife and his best friend, which adds anger to the mix. Then there is the rebuff (understandable) from his daughter, and the problem of the very undesirable marriage.

A heavy load, certainly, but it is lightened by several things. In particular, Schmidt's eventual forgiving of his wife's affair and his hoping that she would have forgiven him for any ways in which he had disappointed her, marks an emotional turn toward healing in the film. More generally, things are lightened by a number of elements that together make for a broadly comic tone in the film. Often the music suggests we see potentially troubling action as comic, but the funniest things about the film are the various people Schmidt encounters along his path.

Prospective bridegroom Randall and his family members, especially his mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), with whom Schmidt stays for several days before the wedding, are nice but mixed-up members of a dysfunctional family, which provides comic relief for us and Schmidt, who conveys most of his grim amusement through wonderfully complex facial expressions. As bad as he feels, at least he's not as crazy as THEY are.

At the very end, Schmidt appears to be saved from his despair by his strong emotional reaction to the young boy's drawing, especially as the last seconds show him managing a kind of smile through the tears. He has made some difference, after all. Perhaps this will give him the foothold he needs to begin the climb back to emotional stability and a workable life after his losses.


Based on the novel by Louis Begley. Numerous awards and nominations for Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates.