About Schmidt
review by KJ Doughton, 3 January 2002

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is a slave to routine, shackled with golden handcuffs during his final days of work as a respected, financially secure insurance actuary. The sixty-six-year-old Nebraskan obediently sits at a desk, waiting for the clock to strike five. By all accounts, it would seem that this soon-to-be retired husband and father is a success. He boasts a sprawling, spacious home in Omaha, forty-two years of marriage, and a spanking new Winnebago in the parking lot. However, as the sun of Schmidtís perfectly acceptable existence begins to set, the man feels unsatisfied and empty. At a retirement party, he reluctantly accepts the farewell of a yuppie successor, before enduring a string of toasts congratulating Schmidt on "devoting his life to something meaningful."

Why is it, then, that beneath the new bathrobe sent by his soon-to-be-married daughter, something is eating at the man?

Retirement is a difficult adjustment for Schmidt. This creature of habit continues to wake up a half-minute before his alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m., then finds sanctuary in a home desk space similar to that which he inhabited at Woodsman of the World Insurance Company. Schmidt completes crossword puzzles and reads the paper. Dropping in at Woodsman, the retiree notices that his old desk papers have been boxed and unceremoniously stacked next to a corporate dumpster. Itís heartbreaking. Assessing his life, perhaps for the first time ever, this reserved, regimented Midwesterner laments "the wrinkles, the sagging skin, and the veins" he observes in the mirror. Clearly, this image canít be an accurate reflection. Meanwhile, Schmidt calls into question his marriage. "Who is this old woman that lives in my house?" he asks, while picking internal, unspoken battles with his longtime mate.

In a hilarious montage of slow-burning irritation, Schmidt grumbles about the habits and mannerisms that define his wife, Helen (June Squibb). Pulling keys from her purse long before arriving at the car. Tossing out "perfectly good food, just because the expiration date is past." Reminding him not to "dilly dally" when heís out and about.

Desperate to beef up his routine with something of substance, Schmidt responds to a television advertisement by Childreach urging watchers to sponsor Tanzanian orphans "for $22 a month." Encouraged by the organizationís literature to correspond with such children, Schmidt begins a letter-fueled, long distance relationship with six-year-old Ndugu, whom he sponsors from afar.

Such letters are a candid catharsis for Schmidt, and he writes to Ndugu about his most heartfelt, impassioned feelings and thoughts. One chuckle-inducing scene has the senior write, "The guy who took my place at work is a cocky bastard," before he quickly reviews the expression, remembers who his audience is, and crosses it out. The waves of desperate words also act to contrast Schmidtís flat, shallow interactions with family and friends, and his inability to connect with others on anything more than a surface level.

A turning point in Schmidtís unhappy life occurs when his wife suddenly dies. Her passing thrusts the widower into a messy awakening, as heís forced to reckon with unresolved conflicts and troublesome secrets lingering in the family closet. For instance, thereís the troubling family that his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) intends to marry into. Her suitor, Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney) is a Colorado waterbed salesman with Elvis sideburns, a mullet, and a yellow button on his sport jacket that reads, "ASK ME." After consoling Schmidt on the loss of his wife, this future son-in-law excitedly exclaims, "Iíve got an investment opportunity for you, and itís not a pyramid scheme." Itís the comment to make any prospective father-in-law shake in his boots. Schmidt must also come to terms with passive-aggressive Jeannie, who scolds her father for not giving his wife higher priority. "Why did you get her the cheapest casket?" asks Jean shortly after Helenís funeral. Responding defensively, he blames Mrs. Schmidt for sinking their money into the yet-to-be-driven Winnebago. "I was willing to go as far as the Minnie Winnie," he complains, "but she wanted the Adventurer!"

About Schmidtís final act sees its protagonist venturing across the country in a frantic quest to stop the marriage between Randall and Jeannie. It culminates in a riotous meeting between the standoffish hero and Randallís earth-muffin mother (courageously played by Kathy Bates), an uninhibited boozer whose startling confessions make "disclosure" seem a dirty word. "I breast-fed Randall until he was five," she cheerfully admits. "Other people objected, but look at the results!"

About Schmidt is a hysterically funny movie, but its laughs come from moments of both uncomfortable truth and inspired vision. An insect splattered across a windshield. Ceramic miniatures skidding across the roof of a motor home. Nicholson struggling atop an undulating waterbed mattress. Bates letting it all hang out for a startling hot-tub romp. Like the criminally underrated Ben Stiller vehicle Flirting With Disaster, Alexander Payneís movie induces both giggles and tears as its frustrated subject limps along in search of greater meaning through a landscape more infinite that his past trappings had even hinted at.

Ultimately, About Schmidt is about one manís awakening from the coma of routine, and his snowballing realization that life is what you make of it. Within the conventions of career and marriage, Schmidt is an honorable, accomplished man. But perhaps in other areas of his existence, heís still just starting from scratch.

Directed by:
Alexander Payne

Jack Nicholson
Kathy Bates
Hope Davis
Dermot Mulroney
June Squibb
Howard Hesseman
Len Cariou
Harry Groener

Written by:
Alexander Payne
Jim Taylor

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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