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About Schmidt (2002)

Perhaps the best way to think of this film is as a riff on It's a Wonderful Life. The story begins with one minute left in Warren Schmidt's career as an insurance man in Omaha, NE. At a retirement party that night his colleagues and his young replacement praise and toast the work that he has done. But the next day it begins to dawn on him that he now has nothing to do. He has no hobbies or other interests, and a trip to the office to see if he can help with the transition reveals that he's completely unmissed. Then it begins to occur to him that he finds his wife, Helen, rather annoying. Finally, watching television late one night, he sees an ad for a charity that allows contributors to "adopt" an African child for $22 a month and he signs up. Following the instructions in the information kit he receives, along with information about his young charge, Ndugu, he begins to write a letter about himself. It rapidly devolves into a rambling discourse about the disappointments in his life, including complaints about Helen. At last he's found someone to share himself with, however distant and however inappropriate the communication. Over the course of the movie he writes several more times, the letters providing a comic narration.

Shortly thereafter Schmidt returns home from the store to find Helen dead on the floor, killed by an aneurysm while vacuuming. When their daughter, Jeannie, and her vapid fiancŽ, Randall, who Warren loathes, come for the funeral Schmidt hopes to somehow convince her not to marry, maybe even to move back home--"Who will take care of me?" he asks--but instead they end up parting on unhappy terms as she accuses him of ignoring her most of her life and of being cheap even about Helen's funeral arrangements. Then, in the final, almost inevitable, insult, Warren discovers a packet of love letters from his one friend to Helen, leading to an ineffectual confrontation. But now Warren finds himself truly alone and his whole past life called into question.

At loose ends, Schmidt sets out by himself in the Winnebago that Helen had bought for them to take on trips. He plans to drive to Denver to talk Jeannie out of making the same mistake he believes he's made, of marrying badly. But she tells him not to come until the wedding, so he begins a trip back into his past--to much changed boyhood home and alma mater and so on--wending his way across the Midwest. In the course of his journey, Schmidt, recognizing his own shortcomings, comes to forgive Helen and his friend. In a scene that recalls how David Lynch used the firmament in The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, his request for some sign that his contrition has been heard is answered with a shooting star.

On Schmidt's finally arriving in Denver, we're introduced to Randall's grotesque family, led by his overly libidinous mother (Kathy Bates). But we also see that Randall, though a dullard, is an earnest one and that Jeannie is content with him and with his family. As events build towards Schmidt's wedding toast, which it is implied will be the moment when he unburdens himself of the bitter truths about his own life and the mistake Jeannie is making, it becomes obvious just how selfish an act this would be. So the words he speaks instead, though dishonest, are a genuine act of love and selflessness. The viewer is proud of his deception.

Still, when he returns home, Schmidt is confronted by his empty house and empty life and the questions about whether he's made a difference. In one of his letters to Ndugu he talked of his youthful ambition, not necessarily to be a Henry Ford, but to be a "semi-important" man. We're invited now to share his judgment that he's been wholly unimportant instead. But, waiting in the mail is a letter from Africa. One of the nuns who cares for Ndugu has written to describe how Schmidt's money is improving the boy's life. Enclosed is a crayon drawing of a white man holding a black boy's hand. Here, as with Danny DeVito in The Big Kahuna, Jack Nicholson's face -- it's lines and crevices and the character etched therein -- takes over. His face fills the screen and he begins to weep. If It's a Wonderful Life told the story of a man who'd had a wonderful life without realizing it, About Schmidt tells the story of a man who once believed he'd had a wonderful life, but then realizes that may not have been true. And while George Bailey comes to understand that he's touched many lives, Warren Schmidt is redeemed when he realizes that he's touched at least one.

Opinion seems split about this movie, and the divide seems to come over the question of whether filmmaker Alexander Payne is sincere about Schmidt's epiphany or whether it's all just an exercise in cynicism. The latter view may seem to be justified by the genuine savagery of his previous film, Election, and at least some trepidation must be caused by his transferring the Schmidt of Louis Begley's novel out of the Hamptons. But Mr. Payne is from Omaha, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt as to the setting, and, even if one is intended, there's no reason for us to accept a cynical reading of the film. If the rest of the story is sometimes a bit condescending or even unpleasant, it is more than made up for by the series of scenes--when Schmidt forgives Helen, when he restrains himself for his daughter's sake, and when he gets the letter from Africa--that add up to a lovely story arc of a man growing up late, but not too late. And if Jack Nicholson sometimes seems barely restrained in such a mundane role he convinces utterly in these key moments. It's hard to imagine anyone, at least anyone who approaches with an open mind, being unaffected the last scene in particular, as fine a portrait of redemption as you're likely to find on film.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

    -MOVIE SITE: About Schmidt (New Line Cinema)
    -INFO: About Schmidt (2002) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Alexander Payne (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Louis Begley (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Jack Nicholson (
    -ARTICLE: Coverage of About Schmidt Casts Shadow on Child Sponsorship: Oscar-nominated film is causing positive and negative ripples in the press and in relief agencies. (Todd Hertz, 03/19/2003, Christianity Today)
    -INTERVIEW: Nicholson on Age, Acting and 'Being Jack' (DANA KENNEDY, September 22, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: America's Mythic Cinema Hero: The Regular Guy (A. O. SCOTT, December 8, 2002, NY Times)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Hipster Folklore of The Holdovers : Alexander Payne is the hipster’s Sinclair Lewis. (ARMOND WHITE, December 27, 2023, National Review)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: About Schmidt (
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: About Schmidt (MRQE)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: About Schmidt (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (James Bowman)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Ken Masugi,
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Gerri Pare, Catholic News Service)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Doug Cummings, Chiaroscuro)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (J. Robert Parks, Phantom Tollbooth)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Jeffrey Overstreet)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Andrea D. Lobel, Journal of Religion & Film)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Steven Isaac, Plugged In)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Halyna Barannik, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Stephen Holden, The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Philip French, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Tim Robey, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (John Powers, LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (David Edelstein, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Shan Fowler, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Frank Ochieng,
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Rob Blackwelder, SplicedWire)
    -REVIEW: of About Schmidt (Rob Stennett , Killing the Buddha)

    -REVIEW: of Shipwreck by Louis Begley (Heather Havrilesky, Salon)