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
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
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
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.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult