Friday, November 26, 2010

ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002): About Happiness

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Tolstoy
I generally do not care for movies like About Schmidt.  Unhappy characters in movies are often glamorous people in glamorous professions who are married to glamorous spouses, and live in glamorous homes.  If they happen to be poor or alone, feel assured that their situation will predictably change by the movie’s end.  Or, in the case of Titanic, the poor boy will end up on the bottom of the ocean and live on in the dreams of the rich girl he loved.  Anyway, the cause of the person’s unhappiness in a movie is usually a desire that is thwarted by some evil or anally retentive individual.  Abusive or fanatically strict parents (the evil step-mother) in movies are generally the cause of all neurosis.  The shrill and insensitive or neglectful spouse is the second leading cause.  And evil employers who don’t give a damn about their workers, or appreciate the tremendous contribution that the star of the movie usually makes towards his occupation, are almost as common as the evil parent or evil spouse.  About Schmidt is different.  Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is so much like a thousand other people I’ve known that for once I can almost identify with the lead character in a movie.
 On the day of his retirement, Schmidt sits in his office among all of his boxes of documents he has prepared for his replacement and watches the clock.  Schmidt has worked as an insurance actuary in Nebraska for most of his life and apparently he was quite good at it.  A retirement party is held in his honor, and his replacement assures him that he will still have plenty of questions for Schmidt as he becomes accustomed to the new position.  Schmidt’s wife, Helen (June Squibb), looks on proudly, though she probably has never understood exactly what it was that Schmidt did for a living.  Schmidt leaves work with Helen and returns to his nice suburban home that has an RV parked in the driveway.  Schmidt shuffles around the house, eats dinner and lunch with Helen, and we understand that he doesn’t have a clue what to do with his life.
 In response to a television add, he decides to sponsor a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu for just twenty-two dollars a month. Schmidt sends Ndugu a number of letters where for some reason he expressed everything that he was feeling.  Most of these letters Ndugu would be incapable of understanding.  Also, after some hesitation, Schmidt decides to go back and visit where he worked.  The replacement, upon seeing Schmidt at the office so soon after the retirement, is taken aback and not so subtly suggests that Schmidt go back home; he does assure Schmidt that he will contact him with any questions.  Schmidt takes the elevator down, exits outside close to where the garbage dumpsters are located, and Schmidt notices that all the boxes of documents that he had organized for his replacement have now been thrown in the trash.  Schmidt returns home only to find his wife Helen lying dead on the floor after she had been performing some cleaning chores.
 At Helen’s funeral, we meet Schmidt’s only daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis).  Jeannie berates Schmidt for not spending more money on the casket, and we get the feeling right away that she’s not extremely fond of her father.  Jeannie is to be married in the near future to a sales man in Denver, and we can guess right away that he’s not much of a match.  Shortly after Helen’s funeral, Schmidt takes off in his RV in order, so he says, to help Jeannie out with the wedding arrangements.  Jeannie is not pleased with this offer of assistance and orders her father to return back to Nebraska until the time that the wedding is actually to take place.  However, rather than return to his boring existence, Schmidt decides to drive his RV around for a few days and take in the sights.  He stops at an RV camp and encounters an almost unbearably upbeat couple there.  At one point, while alone with the wife while the husband is off buying beer, he talks to her about his life and finds solace.  Unfortunately, he misinterprets her sympathy to be affection, gives her a kiss, and she loses her temper and tells him to get out.
 Schmidt finally goes back to Denver for the wedding and stays at Randall’s mother’s home.  Randall’s mother (Kathy Bates) jumps into the hot tub with him while she’s nude.  This understandably scares Schmidt away.  Schmidt also meets Randall’s father, his father’s new wife, and Randall’s brother.  Neither Randall nor the rest of his family are exactly what Schmidt had in mind for his daughter.  However, when Schmidt broaches the idea with Jeannie that she might be making a mistake marrying this “nincompoop,” Jeannie tells him to either act like a proud father or else go back to Omaha and stay out of her life.  She feels that her father, who for so many years had been emotionally absent from her life, was now in no position to give her advice.  Schmidt honors her wish and does behave, and he gives a toast at the wedding where he praises all of the new family members that truly horrify him.
 Schmidt returns to Denver and finds a letter from the orphanage where Ndugu has been staying.  The letter is written by a Catholic Nun, and it explains how Ndugu has been doing and about his recent recovery from an illness.  It also contains a picture that Ndugu has drawn in crayon.  Schmidt is so moved  by the colorful drawing that he breaks into tears.  Probably, he comprehends that Ndugu with so little at his disposal has created a drawing with more life in it than anything Schmidt had created in his sixty-five years.
 Socialist movie critic, Joanne Laurier, refers to this movie as honest criticism and satire (which it is).  The depressing sights and information that Schmidt is exposed to during his pilgrimage point to a depersonalized and sometime sick culture.  However, Ms. Laurier feels that the film is weak because the problems presented tend to be more blamed on personal failings “rather than on a failed society and failed culture.”  This seems to be a mantra with her.  In reviewing the movie Kinsey, she suggested that it was misguided to assume liberation through the elimination of “sexual ignorance,” and instead suggested “liberation is first and foremost a political and economic act.”  Without meaning to take Ms. Laurier’s words out of context, About Schmidt demonstrates that political and economic liberation in itself does not bring fulfillment.  Schmidt was for all practical purposes politically and economically liberated.  Through this capitalistic system that Ms Laurier would undoubtedly assail, he now had enough money to see and learn anything that he wanted.  He could financially assist his daughter if necessary and, more importantly, he had enough money to contribute to a private charity that had meaning to both Schmidt and to Ndugu.  As far as political liberation, the RV he owned was a symbol of a freedom as he could travel to anywhere he wanted with it.  Yes, there is irony in Schmidt being an actuary.  However, in Socialist countries where 80 percent or more of one’s income goes to the government, I’m guessing they would be in need of actuaries as well – and the need for truck drivers, warehouse men, bureaucrats, union members, etc.  It’s unfair to view the problems presented in this film specifically as an American phenomena because characters like Schmidt can be found elsewhere as well.  And it speaks extremely little of men to suggest that their problems are a product of a “failed society and failed culture” because we have the capability of being so much more than automations manipulated easily by outside forces.
 I admit that Hollywood is generally at its worst when it portrays the differences of rich and poor people.  In a Hollywood fantasy lack of money accounts for little.  Poverty seems to make the poor virtuous.  Rich people in Hollywood movies are often troubled, and we are supposed to feel sorry for those idle rich who have nothing else to do but travel the world and seek adventure and lurid romance.  But as dishonest as this portrayal of society can be, it is even more dishonest to blame class differences for every failing.  It’s a failure to achieve personal rather than economic or political liberation that has made Schmidt so unhappy.  A little more money or a little less money would have done nothing to bring him serenity.  It is his attempt at personal liberation through the speech he made at his daughter’s wedding and through his letters and contributions to a charity that have given Schmidt his first chance at happiness he probably never before had.   No system of government could have dictated this outcome for him.  This may be the saddest movie that I have ever seen because it is so real.  I know many people, rich and poor, in the same situation as Schmidt.  Yet it gives a key to a man who in the end understands how terrible and ordinary his life has been.
September 1, 2006 
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

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