Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Harry Gittes, Michael Besman
Screenwriter: Alexander Payne
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot
Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, Kathy Bates
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2002
With the baby boomer generation approaching retirement,
an increasing number of our clients find themselves struggling
with the vacuum created when the most significant parts of
their lives — work and sometimes family relationships
— begin to come to an end. Though certainly no panacea,
About Schmidt can serve through both positive and negative
modeling for individuals seeking to add meaning to their lives.
About Schmidt is an intricate character study
of a man who falls into the abyss of retirement and widowhood
then gradually climbs out of it by getting in touch with his
heart. His salvation comes inadvertently, through a one-way
series of letters he writes to an orphan in Tanzania.
As the movie begins we learn that Warren Schmidt, for decades,
felt displaced in his own home, evaded family conflicts and
defined himself by his work. He appears to lack even the slightest
spark of intellectual curiosity or passion. Days after a meaningless
retirement dinner he returns to the office only to find that
his young replacement has upgraded Warren’s entire system
and discarded his files, using none of the legacy of business
acumen Warren left behind.
At home his wife Helen tries to be cheerful and
surprises him with breakfast in a new RV. The stale dialogue
displays a yawning absence of meaning in their marriage. Neither
understands any longer who they are to one another. One night
Warren finds himself, after 42 years of marriage, asking,
“Who is this old women next to me in bed?” But
when he returns home one day to discover Helen has dropped
dead on the kitchen floor, his life quickly unravels.
Even as ineffectually as his marriage and work
filled the void of his life, when both suddenly vanish Warren
sinks into a depression. Then, at the nadir of his decline,
he decides to adopt and sponsor a six-year old African boy
for 73 “precious” cents a day. The viewer is given
few clues as to why he decides to take this action. But as
the film plays out, in hindsight it appears as if in this
act he is subconsciously grasping a lifeline. A second lifeline
falls his way equally as “accidentally,” when
Warren decides to take to the road in the RV in order to stop
his daughter from making a tragic mistake by going through
with her wedding.
En route to “save” his daughter,
Warren flexes the wings of his new freedom by trying his hand
at social relationships. But having practiced few social skills
during his life, his attempts fail, either because he is oblivious
to the other person’s feelings or because he is bound
by his own fears. His daughter keeps him at arm’s length
when he ham-handedly tries to intervene in her wedding. Her
fiancée’s liberated mother makes casual romantic
advances and it scares him to death. Later, when temporary
neighbors at an RV park invite him to dinner, he misinterprets
the situation miserably, makes a pass at the neighbor’s
wife and gets thrown out.
But throughout this series of social catastrophes,
Warren continues to write his adopted “son.” The
long confessional letters provide Warren his one honest emotional
outlet. It’s almost as if he were writing them to his
own long-orphaned inner child. Eventually, when he receives
news of the benefits his sponsorship has on the boy’s
life, he sheds real tears of joy, and we realize that slowly,
this accidental “therapy” has had its effect.
Despite the botched efforts to connect to people, Warren begins
to feel alive, reborn. He starts to appreciate himself and
his defenses begin to dissolve.
As an adjunct to therapy, About Schmidt can be
thought provoking, perhaps even transformative. It can serve
as both a negative or positive model for clients.
One example of how it can serve as a warning
comes from Roger who posted this note to my Web site, cinematherapy.com:
“About Schmidt is one of the most depressing movies
I have seen this year. Can a film affect you that negatively,
[and] yet have an upside in cinema therapy? The message to
me was don't sit on your butt waiting for something to happen
to you after retirement, start planning now. I have, in fact,
begun discussing it with my wife and we have had a number
of excellent plans. Retirement will begin with the purchase
of a Winnebago. We'll see where life takes us after that.”
An anecdote about a client, Becky, aptly demonstrates
how the film can serve as a positive model as well. Becky
felt depressed as she struggled with mid-life questions of
meaning and purpose. I encouraged her to watch About Schmidt.
In our following session she said she was inspired and reassured
that she was not the only person caught in this predicament.
Becky especially focused on Warren’s internal monologue
and could relate to the discrepancy between his thoughts and
actions, which made her laugh and allowed her to view her
own lack of authenticity without getting trapped in self-criticism.
Seeing the effect of Warren’s letter-writing process
prompted her to begin daily journaling, advice she’d
resisted for months. As Becky wrote about her deepest inner
truth she gradually dared to get in touch with emotions that
she had previously guarded from the world. This awareness
process supported our work immensely. When my client’s
self-acceptance and authenticity increased, her depression
Guidelines for questions:
Before clients watch the movie:
• Keep the following question in mind
while you watch: What makes Warren Schmidt such an “empty”
and depressed person?
• What helps him start changing?
After clients watch the movie:
• Is it possible there are things you
are not aware of - like Schmidt?
• Did Schmidt demonstrate something that
you need to avoid and other behavior that you might want to
• Do you have inner resources that Schmidt
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy