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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. It follows the story of an insurance actuary who begins his retirement and is unsure of what to do with his self-estimate of 9 years he has left.

Schmidt 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 sponsor a child in Tanzania, 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), who also turns out to be a jerkass pyramid scheme recruiter.

As he goes out one day, mulling about his wife, he returns to find that she has suddenly died from a cerebral 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.


Dear Ndugu, here are some examples of the following tropes found in this movie:

  • 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.
  • All for Nothing: Warren feels that throughout his life, he's never helped out anybody but himself and so he loses his sense of value to society as soon as he retires from his job as an insurance actuary. The fact that he can't even convince his daughter not to marry a loser water-bed salesman who is recruiting other losers for a pyramid scheme only lowers his self-esteem even further.
    • The entire compilation of Warren's actuarial work that he did for 32 years at Woodmen is headed for the dumpster after his executives decide his archived research and files are obsolete and won't be useful in the future.
  • 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.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: There's a large disconnect between the reality of Warren's life and his description of it in his letters to Ndugu. Some examples of these include his stating that his daughter has a position of great importance at an electronics firm (in fact she's a shipping clerk), claiming that his former colleagues are in constant need of his advice and assistance even after his retirement (in fact, they almost immediately discarded his research archive and want nothing to do with him), and that he's keeping his house in perfect order after his wife's death (the place turned into a pig sty in a matter of weeks). It's strongly implied that Warren is deluding himself into believing these lies as much as he's trying to mislead Ndugu.
  • Big Eater: Warren is this. He loves food and is constantly eating (able to afford so thanks to the large amounts of retirement money and savings off his actuarial work). Being a Manchild, Warren eats like a teenager and subsists on ice cream with cookies from Dairy Queen, ham-cheese sandwiches with chips and milk, Red Baron pizzas and Calzones. After his wife passes, Warren decides to rely on frozen corn dogs and fried chicken from the TV dinner brand Hungry Man. And refers to his grocery trip as "a lot of work".
  • 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 start her own family in 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.
    • Warren's letters to Ndugu are filled with stories and claims with little if any foundation in reality.
  • 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 
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Jeannie does this twice to Warren. The first time is when she feels Warren didn't spend a sufficient amount on her mother Helen's funeral calling what Warren spent an insult to her. The second time is when Warren begs her not to marry Randall, but she still thinks that she wants to be with Randall and refuses to call off the wedding just because Warren ordered her to.
  • Cringe Comedy: Much of the humor in the film derives from Warren's tendency to stumble into one awkward situation after another. Some are the result of his own bad judgment (ranging from making an inappropriate sexual advance towards a married woman whom he just met to reminiscing about his childhood with a clerk at a tire shop where his family home used to be), most of the other awkward moments are due to being forced to interact politely with people he finds irritating or repulsive (his to-be in-laws).
  • 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," later saying in the review that the film "is not about a man who goes on a journey to find himself, because there is no one to find." 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.
  • Empty Shell: What Warren is, especially after the death of his wife Helen.
    Ebert: About Schmidt is essentially a portrait of a man without qualities, baffled by the emotions and needs of others.
  • Epic Fail: Warren's mission to stop the wedding and reconnect with his daughter did not succeed on any level. The nadir is him giving a cheesy disingenuous speech about how pleased he is with the union. There are several smaller instances of the same throughout Warren's adventure:
    • Warren's attempts at keeping house after his wife's death.
    • Warren's effort to return to his former place of employment with the hope of making himself useful to the company again.
    • Warren's drunken pass at a married woman he had just met while her husband was out buying beer.
  • Fan Disservice: Roberta (Kathy Bates) trying to seduce Schmidt in a hot tub.
  • First World Problems: Everything in the whole movie Schmidt complains about counts, especially in comparison to what his pen pal Ndugu is suffering back in Tanzania such as dysentery and malnutrition.
  • 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.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Warren. He seems to look down on adults much younger than him, including the young man who succeeded him in his actuarial job at Woodmen and the tire shop clerk whose location was where his childhood home used to be. He is also very unhappy with who his daughter Jeannie has chose to marry, spending most of the movie trying to prevent their marriage from finalizing.
  • 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.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Roberta. She tells Warren that Helen ("And I mean Helen") was very fortunate to avoid becoming busy prepping the party and ceremony for Jeannie and Randall's wedding. Helen died before the preparations could be finished. Warren isn't amused by her joking of his dead wife at all.
  • Irony:
    • Warren notes that his old home, which is now a tire store, used to have a tire swing.
    • Warren is an insurance actuary who did not plan his retirement.
  • It's All My Fault: Much of the film is Warren realizing that all the shit in his life is basically his fault.
  • 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. Though don't forget, his daughter is wanting to marry a loser water-bed salesman who baits a pyramid scheme on innocent people.
  • 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.
  • Lazy Husband: Warren is implied to have been this to Helen. He made Helen do all the house cleaning and then would got angry at her for spending his money on herself. The day after Helen passes, Warren thinks Jeannie should start cooking and taking care of him.
  • Lower-Class Lout: The Hertzel clan in a nutshell. Randall didn't fall too far from the tree.
  • Manchild: Larry, an elderly manchild at that. He is even called a "little boy" by his ex-wife Roberta for throwing tantrums, giving such unnecessary redundant speeches, and yelling for Roberta like she's his mother.
    • Randall is basically a forty year old teenager.
  • Manly Tears: Warren himself at the end.
  • Miser: Warren is shown to be stingy with his money, which Jeannie admonishes him about. He got angry at his wife Helen for spending his hard-earned money on nesting dolls and refused to buy an RV the same size she wanted and lets Helen spend her own money to finally afford the Winnebago. Jeannie also feels Warren spent too little on the casket for Helen when she passes. Warren also mentions he is considering selling his two-story house for a small condo. But this turns out to be a positive when Randall tries enticing him on a pyramid scheme and Warren refuses to give in.
  • Non-Nude Bathing: Warren during the hot tub scene, as while Roberta is completely nude.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Most of Warren's depression comes from this being stripped from him. For instance, he always thought of his daughter Jeannie as the cute little girl who could charm anyone, but she grows up to be homely and bitter, and when Warren insists she can do better than Randall, her reaction screams, "No, I can't."
  • Only Sane Man: Randall is a braindead buffoon who cons people with a pyramid scheme and hazardous water beds. Only Warren outright despises Randall, though gets a good rep overall from Jeannie and the rest of the Hertzel clan.
  • Parents in Distress: After Warren throws out his back from the water bed Randall supplied him, Jeannie orders Randall to help out and treat Warren. Randall refuses protesting he has a friend to go pick up at the airport, but then Jeannie angrily snaps back at him to stop pinning everything on her. Neither of them choose to stay and take care of Warren, so they simply let Roberta nurse him instead.
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: Warren begs Jeannie to stay with him, and throw off the wedding and not to marry Randall.
  • Pyramid Scheme: Randall (Jeannie's fiancee and Warren's anticipated son-in-law) tries to hook Warren into an investment opportunity. Warren, being an actuary familiar with poor investments that carry risk and uncertainty, is skeptical of joining and waits until he is at a table having dinner with others associated with Randall to ask why didn't Randall ever announce his investment was successful. Randall's brother Duncan angrily admits it was a pyramid scheme and it cost him $800. This confirms Warren's suspicions were for the wiser, and Randall poorly tries weaseling out with Insane Troll Logic that he only lost money because his recruits lost money and that their recruits failed to find more recruits.
  • Product Placement
    • When Jeannie and Randall 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
    • Warren stops by at a Dairy Queen for an Oreo milkshake.
    • Alone at home with no one to cook for him, Warren resorts to a stereotypical bachelor's dinner of TV dinners such as Red Baron pizzas and Hungry Man's fried chicken dinners.
  • 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.
  • Rich Boredom: At his retirement party, we are told that because Warren served as both an insurance actuary and Assistant Vice President for Woodmen, he became a very rich man after 32 years of working there. And on day 2 of his retirement he tries returning to work only to find someone else qualified though not as experienced has already taken over, and refuses his assistance.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: At least as wild of a rampage as a 66-year old man can create. Angry he lost both his job, his wife and in a metaphorical sense his daughter, Warren writes acrimoniously about the young intern who "stole" his job as an insurance actuary in his letter to Ndugu, attacks his best friend Ray after discovering he had an affair with Warren's wife Helen and attempts to talk down Jeannie from marrying Randall believing the latter to be incapable of a breadwinner for a family.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Warren constantly parks his Winnebago across several parking spaces. He gets ticketed numerous times, but continues to do so.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Randall Hertzel, Jeannie's idiot soon-to-be husband who sells water beds and now pyramid schemes.
  • 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.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Randall when he wanted to con Warren out of his money outright tells him "It's not a pyramid scheme! A lot of people think it's a pyramid scheme, but it's not!"
  • This Loser Is You: Warren's situation in life is quite relatable to many individuals who achieved outward success materially but completely failed to find much meaning in what they did and who wound up completely alienated from family members and (alleged) friends due to a lack of genuine personal connections.
  • 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, and that his anger isn't about his wife's death, it's about his own life.
  • Trophy Child: Jeannie to Warren. He feels he can't be happy without her and begs her to stay with him, despite her adamant desire to become independent.
  • What Does She See in Him?: Warren is bemused by what makes Jeannie attached to Randall; he's a failure of a salesman who doesn't have a steady job and is relying on Jeannie to work hard and make money.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Jeannie calls out Warren for buying the cheapest casket to bury her dead mother and then for pressuring her not to go forward with marrying Randall (who is a lousy, dim-witted salesman).
    • Also between Jeannie's angry preachings to him, Warren while traveling in his RV to Denver (to break-up Jeannie and Randall's marriage and wedding) is greeted by a married couple who make him dinner. While the husband is out, Warren is comforted by the wife both physically and verbally — which he interpreted as a green light to kiss her. She flips out, calls him insane and orders him to leave.
  • 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.