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Film / About Schmidt

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"I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?"
Warren Schmidt

About Schmidt is a 2002 dramedy movie written and directed by Alexander Payne, starring Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt. He is not a particularly nice person, since... well... we are talking about Jack Nicholson, so what did you expect?

Schmidt, having just retired from his career as an insurance actuary, is trying to come to terms with the prospect of spending his last remaining years on Earth with his boring, nagging wife. Out of boredom, he decides to adopt a foster child in Africa, to whom he writes letters about how much his life sucks now. One of the few things that keeps him going is his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is about to get married to a dimwitted waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney).

As he goes out one day, mulling about his wife, he returns to find her dead of a blood clot. Not much later, he finds some old love letters lying around the house. It turns out that his wife had an affair with his best friend, some 25 years earlier.


Deciding he's had enough of just waiting for death to knock on his door, Schmidt embarks on a road trip to (stop!) his daughter's wedding, visiting the places he frequented throughout his life on his way over there.

The whole time Schmidt narrates his views through the letters he sends to his foster child in Africa. Along the line he reflects about the life he had, he learns to miss his deceased wife and starts questioning if anything he did actually made a difference to anyone.

The movie, while set for a Downer Ending (is he, or is he not going to kill himself?), instead ends on a Tear Jerker.


About Schmidt provides examples of the following:

  • Actor Allusion: Although Nicholson deliberately suppresses his usual persona to play the downtrodden Schmidt, in one of the letter-writing scenes he talks about how he once dreamed of starting a Fortune 500 company and an imaginary magazine cover is shown with the headline "Warren Schmidt raises the stakes - and some eyebrows" with a picture of him doing so himself, looking a bit more like a typical Jack Nicholson character.
    • When Roberta is taking care of Warren it has some eerie similarities to an earlier star-making role for Kathy Bates.....
    • There was a scene which parodied a famous scene from Five Easy Pieces that test audiences loved. But since it was a role WAY different from any we associate with Jack Alexander Payne decided to cut it.
  • Adorkable: Larry. He tries to make eloquent speeches (often when one isn't really called for) about The Schmidts joining the family. It's oddly hilarious and endearing at the same time.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Is Warren going to commit suicide? Or is the realization that Ndugu appreciates his help a reason to go on?
  • An Aesop: You can still matter to somebody.
  • Anti-Climax: It looked like Warren was going to unload on everyone at the wedding, but lost his nerve at the last minute and just gives a generic one.
  • Basement-Dweller: On top of being stupid, crass, shady, coarse and presumptious, Randall is a man pushing 40 who still lives with his mother.
  • Bathtub Bonding: This is what Randall's mother attempts on Warren, to say the least.
  • Bittersweet Ending: It's either this, or a Tear Jerker. Is Schmidt holding on to the letter from Ndugu's caretaker as a last resort, or is it genuinely worth sticking around for?
    • Jeannie has married a loser Manchild who has no ambition or any real career prospects, and will presumably starting her own family an already-crowded shoddy slum house in a trash neighborhood, so their future isn't at all bright. But Jeannie and Randall do seem to genuinely love each other.
  • Blatant Lies: Just when it seems like Warren is going to let loose ("You wanna know what I really think? What I really think?"), he chickens out and just blandly praises people that disgust him.
  • But I Digress: When requested to write a brief letter to Ndugu, the poor African child he has decided to sponsor, Schmidt begins by saying a few things about himself, including having a brother who lost a leg to diabetes, and soon ends up pouring his heart out about all the disappointments in his life; his aging wife who he can't stand anymore, his seemingly ungrateful former employers replacing him with someone much younger and less experienced, and his daughter getting engaged to a man he doesn't approve of. Eventually he decides to wrap it up so Ndugu can go off and spend the money he's sent to him (of course where Ndugu lives there can't be many shops). These "Dear Ndugu" letters are used at various points in the film as a device to summarize what Schmidt's been up to and for him to reflect on things. Quite what Ndugu or whoever ends up reading them will make of all this is anyone's guess.note 
  • Despair Event Horizon: The entire film is Warren starting at a Despair Event Horizon, and slowly getting worse. Roger Ebert noted that the film was the embodiment of the idiom by Henry David Thoreau, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," as Warren learns that he isn't becoming a special someone that the magazines write about. The climax of his despair is Warren's speech just before receiving the letter.
    Warren: (narrating) But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?... What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.
  • Downer Ending: Narrowly averted in the end, when Schmidt receives a letter from his foster child.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Certainly how Warren sees Randall's family (they live in a messy street, his divorced hippie parents don't get on very well) but this is shown to be somewhat hypocritical since his relationship with his own wife and daughter isn't perfect either.
  • Epic Fail: Warren's mission to stop the wedding and reconnect with his daughter did not succeed on any level.
  • Fan Disservice: Roberta (Kathy Bates) trying to seduce Schmidt in a hot tub.
  • Flyover Country: Like Payne's previous two films, this film was shot in Omaha, Nebraska. And instead of flying, Schmidt decides to use his new, oversized Winnebago to drive to Denver for his daughter's wedding, and we see countryside that would normally be missed by air travelers.
  • Foreshadowing: His friend Ray was suspiciously distraught over Warren’s wife dying. We soon find out why.
  • Hippie Parents: Roberta, who at one point admits she breastfed Randall til he was almost 5. Also Randall's father seems a bit like one. Used as a contrast to Schmidt's very conventional lifestyle.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Warren is the poster child for the idiom "most men lead lives of quiet desperation." He muses that when he was young, he thought he was going to be a famed pillar of industry, and the rest of the film is him trying to remain relevent to somebody, and finding after he's died, no one will remember him.
  • In Name Only: The book is about a widowed retiree who is unhappy with his daughter's marriage, but it is different in pretty much every other respect. The movie changed the setting, Schmidt's career, the daughter's career, the son-in-law's career, and eliminated the love affair that Schmidt had with a 25 year-old waitress.
  • Irony: Warren notes that his old home, which is now a tire store, used to have a tire swing.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Warren Schmidt. Now that he has gone into retirement, he realizes that he despises his wife. He is actually looking forward to a life without her. And then she dies... it takes a while before he realizes what he has to miss without her.
    • Also the fumbling attempt of him trying to persuade his daughter not to marry her fiance. Yes Warren, you are right, but you don't have to be such of an ass.
  • Kitsch Collection: Warren Schmidt's wife, Helen, collects little Hummel figurines, to Warren's displeasure. Later in the film Warren visits a museum full of them and has to admit they aren't all so bad. Warren and Helen are both in their late 60s, and Helen is depicted as grandmotherly, though technically not a grandmother. He ritualistically puts them in a circle atop the Winnebago as he has his one last goodbye to her, in a starry night. He then leaves them atop the Winnebago as he drives off, scattering them forever.
  • Large Ham: Totally averted by Nicholson. Even his grand speech during the wedding scene was low-key.
  • Lower-Class Lout: The Hertzel clan in a nutshell. Randall didn't fall too far from the tree.
  • Manly Tears: Warren himself at the end.
  • Non-Nude Bathing: Warren during the hot tub scene, in some edits. Randall's mother.
  • Product Placement
    • When Warren's daughter and son-in-law are at the Denver airport to catch a flight to Omaha they are at a gate clearly marked with Midwest Express airline logos. While it would have been possible to fly that route on Midwest Express, doing so would have required an out-of-the-way routing through Milwaukee. United and Frontier airlines would have offered direct flights that probably would have been considerably less expensive (Frontier has since acquired Midwest Express).
    • Woodmen of the World and Plan USA, of course - the latter had a Colbert Bump after the film was released. invoked
  • Retirony: it’s heavily implied Helen has been a homemaker for a long time, but Warren’s retirement means a big change for her as well. She even toasts to a whole new chapter in their lives the first morning of his retirement, then suddenly dies a few days later.
  • Society Marches On: In-Universe. For example, Warren's old fraternity used to be all-white. Now, he pontificates to frat brothers, one of whom is Asian.
  • Stalker Without a Crush: Warren himself towards Jeannie.
  • Stepford Smiler: Warren becomes after the wedding, meekly giving a phony speech about how happy he is with the new son-in-law.
  • Surrogate Soliloquy: Schmidt has a hard time dealing with his mandatory retirement from his mundane job as an insurance actuary. Feeling useless, he responds to a TV ad by "adopting," for a few dollars a month, an African foster child named Ndugu Umbo to whom he writes a series of frank letters describing his many problems, humiliations and misadventures. Schmidt's voice-over narration of these letters, which must make little sense to Ndugu in far-away Tanzania, reveals his troubled inner life with tragic-comic directness to the film's audience.
  • To Absent Friends: Parodied somewhat, when the emotional ex-husband of Warren Schmidt's daughter's fiance's mother gets up to give a speech at the restaurant table. "If only my parents were with us today... but they are really here... right now... hi, Mom... hiya, pop..." Most of the family watches him give his speech, while Warren's head rolls around in medication-induced ecstasy. Roberta just rolls her eyes.
  • Tranquil Fury: Warren is told (accurately) that after the death of his wife, he isn't mourning or sad - he's angry, at the whole world.
  • White Guilt: Warren is first seen listening to Rush Limbaugh. He travels around and expresses in amazement that Native Americans got a "raw deal".
  • You Can't Go Home Again: During one of his excursions on his way to his daughter's wedding, Schmidt goes to visit his childhood home from many years ago, only to find a tire shop now standing in its place. He still goes inside and tries to reminisce, to the bemusement of the clerk.


Example of: