A Cinema Alchemy Review
by Birgit Wolz Ph.D
Director: Alexander Payne
Producer: 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
Released on Video: 06/03/2003
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.
Who can benefit from this movie?
One film critic wrote that teenagers should
see this movie: “Let it be a lesson to them. If they
define their lives only in terms of a good job, a good paycheck
and a comfortable suburban existence, they could end up like
Schmidt, dead in the water. They should start paying attention
to that crazy English teacher.”
I believe that this movie can serve as inspiration
and as a wake-up-call for viewers of all ages who are struggling
with a lack of purpose. Therapeutically, About Schmidt
can serve as both positive and negative models for anybody
seeking to add meaning to their lives. The film might affect
especially viewers who approach retirement and find themselves
confronted with the vacuum that is created when the most significant
parts of their lives — work and sometimes family relationships
— begin to come to an end.
Guidelines for watching:
Before you 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?
Answer these questions (best in writing)
after you 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 adopt?
• Do you have inner resources that Schmidt doesn’t