starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Len Carion, Howard Hesseman and Kathy Bates
written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
directed by Alexander Payne
Based on a novel by Louis Begley, I thought this was an excellent film and Jack Nicholson did a good job of acting the pathosof human life as a retired person in America today. I can only imagine about the life that he is acting. But it may hit a much more poignant mark with older people like my parents and their generation. The movie is set in Nebraska and features a lot of scenes of the recently-retired and widowed insurance company actuary, Warren Schmidt, traveling around these awful, bleak, flat prairie landscapes in the motor home that he and his wife bought for their retirement fun. I thought the opening scenes of the film were especially depressing, and successfully set the tone of the movie by showing the cement-and-steel modern office skyline of downtown Omaha, Nebraska rising out of the flat prairie. Cold, gray and dull. And this is Warren Schmidt’s life - cold, gray and dull. That does not mean that his life is not a good life, nor question that he is an intelligent, honorable and worthwhile man. But at the end of his career when he has a lot of time on his hands Schmidt has to face the big issues of the meaning and value of his life, and I think in his mind he finds himself coming up short.
These are questions that all of us naturally have from the time of adolescence, and we may think that we resolve them satisfactorily by the time we move into the busy, responsibility-laden life of adults. But that is probably only a cosmetic cover-up: one of the polite fictions of society that allows us to get on with the business of making money and paying taxes. I understand the fictions that welive with in society. But I do not think they are ‘polite’ at all. As working adults and parents we are so busy that we can easily put aside further contemplation of those big questions for decades. Maybe we even welcome being allowed to put them aside. But then retirement comes, pushes us out of the activities that occupied us for so long and we discover the Big Questions again, still there, waiting for us to come home to brood on them again.
In the case of Schmidt, whose wife suddenly and unexpectedly dies early in his retirement, he has to face the Big Questions again even without the companionship of his wife. A terrible thing: the loneliness of the human condition - in Omaha, too. But this is why About Schmidt is such a great human drama.
As a hobby, Schmidt decides on a whim to sponsor a needy child in Africa through an organization he discovered on television. His information package about the program arrives in the mail and he is encouraged to write to the child, talk about himself, etc. So he does. A 66-year-old man writing to a five-year-old African boy is hilarious, the great comic element of the film, but also Schmidt’s salvation in the end. With his wife gone and his failure to find meaning in his life, his foster child becomes proof of his worth, hence his salvation. The movie ends with Schmidt sitting at his desk at home shedding all the cathartic tears that he kept inside throughout the film. It’s sweet.
Some great lines and scenes: in his first letter to Ndugu in Tanzania, Schmidt starts writing a normal, conversational letter. But within moments all his anger about his life, his wife, and his daughter’s dopey boyfriend come pouring out. He goes into intimate details of his marriage and complains about is wife, “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” After his wife’s passing, Warren rediscovers the freedom of a bachelor and tries it out by urinating on his bathroom floor - postmortem defiance of his wife, Helen. There’s a little boy in every man.
There is a great collection of weird characters: the boyfriend Randall Hertzl (Dermot Mulroney) sporting a 1970s mullet haircut; Kathy Bates, the libidinous, uninhibited divorcee; and, Howard Hesseman, the gregarious divorced man who still eats at his ex’s house. When I saw Howard Hesseman I recognized his face but forgot his name. “Hey, it’s the WKRP From Cincinnati guy! Dr. Johnny Fever. Boy has he got old.”