American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Warren Schmidt is a man without resources. He has no intellectual curiosity. May never have read a book for pleasure. Lives in a home "decorated" with sets of collector's items accumulated by his wife, each in the display case that came with the items. On his retirement day, he is left with nothing but time on his empty hands. He has spent his entire life working at a job that could have been done by anybody, or, apparently, nobody. He goes to the office to see if he can answer any questions that the new guy might have, but the new guy doesn't. In a lifetime of work, Warren Schmidt has not accumulated even one piece of information that is needed by his replacement.
"The mass of men," Thoreau famously observed, "lead lives of quiet desperation." Schmidt is such a man. Jack Nicholson is not such a man, and is famous for the zest he brings to living. It is an act of self-effacement that Nicholson is able to inhabit Schmidt and give him life and sadness. It is not true to say that Nicholson disappears into the character, because he is always in plain view, the most watchable of actors. His approach is to renounce all of his mannerisms, even the readiness with which he holds himself onscreen, and withdraw into the desperation of Schmidt. Usually we watch Nicholson because of his wicked energy and style; here we are fascinated by their absence.
"About Schmidt," directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Jim Taylor, is not about a man who goes on a journey to find himself, because there is no one to find. When Schmidt gets into his 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer, which he and his wife Helen thought to use in his retirement, it is not an act of curiosity but of desperation: He has no place else to turn.
The film's opening scenes show him suffering through a meaningless retirement dinner and returning home to ask himself, after 42 years of marriage, "Who is this old woman who is in my house?" His wife might ask the same question about her old man. They have lived dutiful and obedient lives, he as an actuary for the Woodman of the World Insurance Co. in Omaha, Neb., she as a housewife and mother, and now that the corporate world has discarded them they have no other role to assume.