Rated R. Length: 2 hour 5 min. Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 1; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 5.
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain…because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-2; 5-8
Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s About Schmidt, based on Louis Begley’s novel, is an engrossing variation of the theme that made Death of a Salesman such an insightful classic. Like Willy Loman, Jack Nicholson’s ordinary Warren Schmidt entertains illusions that he is extraordinary, the indispensable man at his office. Unlike Willy, Schmidt’s coming to an awareness that he is not so extraordinary, is followed by a moment of grace that saves him from the despair that led to Willy Loman’s sad end.
Schmidt is retiring from his job as an actuary at the Woodman of the World Insurance Co. in Omaha, Nebraska, when the film opens. The usual meaningless things are said at the retirement party, and when he and his wife Helen (June Squibb) return home, he wonders about this woman he has been married to for so long, but for whom he has very little feeling. Just how hollow are the compliments about his indispensability Warren learns the day after his party, when he returns to what was his office.
His young replacement is not the slightest interested in any help from him, barely concealing his desire to show his unwelcome visitor to the door. A second shock soon follows when his wife dies suddenly. He now realizes how much he had depended on her—and taken her for granted. (After his retirement dinner, Warren had lain in bed next to Helen and asked, “Who is this old woman who is in my house?”)
His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), returned from Denver for the funeral, tries to console him, but Warren’s hostility to her fiancé Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney) complicates their relationship. It soon becomes clear, when, following the funeral reception, Randall tries to interest Warren in a pyramid scheme, that his misgivings are well grounded. Jeannie and Randall return to Denver, she convinced more than ever to go ahead with her wedding plans. After learning a shocking secret about his wife, Warren decides to travel to Denver in the 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer that he and Helen had intended to use to tour the country together.
Before he leaves Warren does something that will set into motion the grace that will make such a difference for him at the end of the film. He is sitting rather listlessly before his television set when a public service spot captures his attention. It is promoting a Catholic children’s overseas project, inviting viewers to send a monthly check for a particular child. Warren takes out his checkbook and writes a check. Thereby “adopting” a six-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. The rest of the film is a series of confessions in the form of letters to the boy. They are so above the head of a child in their details and observations that we think they must have been just exercises for Warren, not really sent, until–.
On his trip Warren encounters in a trailer camp a friendly couple who invite him to supper. While the husband is absent, the wife comments that Warren is a very sad man. This leads him to do something that spoils the evening and leads to his sudden departure from the camp in the middle of the night. On another night he gazes up at the stars and asks, “Helen, what did you really think of me? Deep in your heart? Was I the man you really wanted to be with?” Questions he had never before entertained. His last question, “Forgive me. Can you forgive me?” apparently is cathartic, for he wakes up the next day (still lying on top of his RV) and drives off, “feeling like a new man.”
In Denver he stays at the home of Randall’s mother Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates). Warren finds that she is both domineering and filled with a zest for life—a little too much of the latter when in her Jacuzzi she joins him and tries to become more than an “in-law.” Just how ridiculous is Randall’s job of selling waterbeds we see in the funny episode of Warren’s trying to sleep in the contraption at the Hertzel’s. As a result his back is thrown so out of joint that he is laid up in bed, unable to help his daughter with any of the wedding arrangements. Warren’s intended showdown with Jeannie does not deter her, so that when the wedding day arrives, the suspense is great. What will Warren say when it is his turn to toast the bride and groom at the reception? And just how will this sad man discover the mysterious movement of grace in his life? Watch—and be amazed by the marvelous performance of Jack Nicholson, as well as that of Kathy Bates and the other cast members.
Note for using the film. This is a great film for two kinds of groups: young adult pursuing demanding careers that leave little time for family, hobbies and such; retirees or those about to retire and who wonder if there is life beyond the office.
1. How does Warren at first define himself? Do you see your job and yourself as one and the same? What jolts Warren out of this? Do you believe that you are indispensable at your job?
2. How do couples often take one another for granted? What besides death can change this?
3. Have you as a parent had trouble letting go as a child grew into adulthood, especially in situations wherein you were sure the child was making a mistake? How have you handled a situation such as that of Warren and his daughter? How is what he did an act of grace, an “emptying” of himself? (See Philippians 2:6-7 for a theological parallel.)
4. How does the simple act of responding to the television appeal affect Warren’s life? What does this say about the importance of people becoming involved in causes outside themselves? How rich are the lives of those who volunteer their time as well as their money, as compared to those who refuse to become involved?
5. How many public service spots similar to the one that drew Warren’s attention do you think you have seen? Have you thought what a difference in a child’s life your responding to the invitation might make? If yours is a church group discussing this film, how about the group sponsoring such a child? (This way virtually anyone could be a part of sharing the cost.)
6. Compare the last scene in this film to the nearly last one in A Civil Action in which a bankruptcy court judge remarks that the way we judge a person’s worth is by their assets.
About Schmidt and Ikiru
Note: the last part of this comparison might contain a spoiler for Schmidt, and definitely does for Ikiru.
There are a few films that the mind will not let go once you walk out of the theater (and in my case, dash off to see the next film on my schedule). Alexander Payne’s film is one of them. This morning at breakfast the film’s resemblance to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru came to mind. Outwardly the films are very different, set in two different cultures and at different times, but the similarities are striking. Both men are widowers. Each has a difficult relationship—Warren with his daughter; Kanji Watanabe with his married son. Both are minor functionaries in a large bureaucracy—Warren is an actuary in an insurance agency; Watanabe a clerk in a Japanese municipal government. Neither of them has tasted much of life.
In fact, the narrator of Ikiru says that for twenty-five years Watanabe has been dead: it is only when he receives the shocking news from his doctor that he has cancer which will kill him in six months that he begins to live. Like the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, Watanabe discovers that pleasure brings no lasting meaning, nor family, nor a love affair. He finds purpose and meaning for his life right in his own desk drawer, when he comes upon a long neglected petition to turn a wasteland of a plot of land into a park for children.
Earlier in the film we see a group of housewives coming to the municipal building complaining of a sump-polluted lot that they feared might endanger their children’s health. Their plea was to have the land cleaned up and turned into a park. They are shunted from clerk to office, to clerk, and finally back to where they had begun, and so they give up.
I thought that this was the filmmaker’s rye comment on government bureaucratic buck-passing—it is, but it is also an integral part of the transformation of Watanabe. He sets forth with the petition himself. Then the film jumps ahead five months. Watanabe is dead, and all the office staff attends his wake. As they drink—too much—they share their views of him. One man states that it was Watanabe who created the new park. The others scoff at this, saying that he never could have done so. And yet as each speaks, sharing a piece of information about the little man’s going from office to office with the petition, suffering many humiliations along the way, yet persistently pursuing the project, we gain a whole picture of what they know only in part—and we see that Kanji Watanabe, whose frozen body was found on the swing in the snow-covered park, did indeed die a fulfilled man, one whose hitherto insignificant life made a difference.
Warren Schmidt is not faced with a specific death sentence, but his actuary experience gives him a pretty good idea of how much time is left him. Like Watanabe, he finds that his small act of reaching out to another can make a difference in how one regards oneself. Only one of Watanabe’s colleagues thought that the man made any difference, and the opinions of the others cause even him to doubt, but nonetheless the park exists. It does not matter that the clerk received no credit. Just the fact that without him there would be no place for the children to play safely is all that matters.
The same with Schmidt. One little child far across the ocean has a better life, thanks to the small checks that the American sends each month to the children’s agency. Warren is better off than Kanji, in that the nun who receives and translates for the African boy has an understanding heart, ignoring all of Warren’s lugubrious personal details he includes in his letters to the boy.