Plot Synopsis: About Schmidt (2002)

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Jack Nicholson is Warren R. Schmidt, an Omaha insurance executive being forcibly retired at the too-early age of 66. He has lived to see his work literally binned by his firm. His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) rarely visits. His wife has become an unpleasant stranger. He has some twenty years, give or take, left to live.

Schmidt is an honest-to-god Everyman: an Everyman who missed every flight to Hollywood. He presents as if bleached, as if a personification of a second-greatest generation, a sum of values, not features. He is the Minimalist Midwesterner: thrift, privacy, and industry incarnate. His plight is memorable; critically, he is not. Schmidt is such an intensely private character that not even the audience will know him entirely.

The film begins as a subtle, well-executed comedy of insulted dignity, as Schmidt tries to find a way to occupy his hours. He tries and fails to slip back to the office. His wife has splurged on a luxury Winnebago and threatens “lots of good times ahead”.

Schmidt retreats to the television, clicks through channels, and sees a beseeching ad for “Childreach”, a charity devoted to children in the Third World. An announcer warns that “no, pity and guilt won’t help”, and Schmidt calls in his pledge.

A form letter arrives with a boldface name, and Schmidt, eyebrows raised, is delivered of a son, six-year old Ndugu of Tanzania. Some $22 is expected of him per month, and the charity suggests a task: Schmidt should write the boy a letter of introduction with a few particulars about his own life in America.

Schmidt pulls out a legal pad and begins to compose the majority of the film’s script, an epistolary narrative of one-sidedness. Schmidt takes to self-absorption with seriousness and therapeutic result. It is through the letters that the film shifts gears, as the comedy gradually decelerates.

His first letter to Ndugu complains about his wife, a banal asterisk of a woman, as matronly as Schmidt is stoically handsome. Before they can take a single “adventure” trip, she fatally strokes out while a passive-aggressive Schmidt “dillydallies” over errands. He finds her pitched forward on the carpet, as her vacuum-cleaner weeps gently on.

Ever the actuary, Schmidt recalculates his life expectancy in light of his solitude. The future looks bleaker and shorter. He buries his wife, as his daughter will later discover, in the second-cheapest coffin available: thrift.

The orphaned Schmidt clings tighter to his imaginary companion Ndugu, and he sets out in his Ark-sized trailer to rescue his daughter for the foolishness of her impending marriage, only weeks away. Her fiancé sports a mullet. His opening salvo to Schmidt involved a transparent sales pitch with the reassuring tag, “this isn’t a pyramid scheme.” The fiancé truly isn’t good enough.

Schmidt’s first sign of life comes when he winningly decides to accept “you sad, sad man” as a sexual overture from a married woman he meets on his journey. Her screams of rejection prompt a dark night of the soul.

When Schmidt finally reaches Denver for the wedding, he joins his future in-laws, including the mother of Jeannie’s fiancé (Kathy Bates). Cultures collide. Schmidt recoils from a ghastly brush with incest inflicted by Bates through her detailed revelations of Jeannie’s sex life. Apparently, “the kids” will hold their marriage together with their “what goes on under the sheets.”

Kathy Bates bursts out of her role as a clapped-out old hippie, weirdly blowing her timing. It becomes abruptly clear that she is a great dramatist, not a comedian, and that she cannot be shoe-horned into a small role in someone else’s film: her presence and talent register too profoundly. Her infamous nude scene, as she joins Schmidt in a creepily snug hot-tub, is directed more like a stunt (Extreme Nudity) than a dramatic scene. She thrills momentarily when she flings down a chicken bone in disgust as her ex-husband, a pompous Toastmaster type, delivers a welcoming oration to Schmidt.

At last, Schmidt receives a response from Tanzania, and its lessons come with the force of a body blow. A Belgian nun has finally, kindly replied, explaining in a short note penned in creaky English that Ndugu is yet too young to read or write, but that she has shared the letters’ contents. Schmidt’s money has provided medication to save Ndugu’s eyesight. Her gentleness, foreign to the rest of the film, exploding like a bomb against Schmidt’s delusions and pride.

In exchange for Ndugu’s vision, Schmidt finally experiences insight. No more letters to be written with the obliviousness of a senile grandfather: “I bet you’re eager to cash this cheque and get yourself something to eat.”

Schmidt, citizen of the First World, needs tiny Ndugu more than he is needed. The tactful Sister is somewhat puzzled by Schmidt’s avalanche of confessional correspondence. At best, Ndugu has been given a précis of the contents. Now Schmidt is more alone than ever. But wait: the boy has enclosed a drawing of two stick figures, one small, one large, holding hands, conjoined against a rainbow. Ndugu, the Earth’s true future, will see, and Schmidt has found ties that bind.

 

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