Jack Nicholson does an outstanding job of playing Schmidt. The movie opens with shots of the Woodman building and then of Schmidt at his desk waiting until exactly 5pm when he retires after many years working for the Woodman insurance company. After the obligatory retirement party, he returns to the office to see if they need any help him and he quickly learns that they politely don’t need him around.
He has, with his wife of 42 years, bought a huge motor home and they plan on seeing the country.
It doesn’t get to that point. His wife dies. He buries her in a cheap coffin. He is at loose ends. His home starts to get messy. In going through his wife’s things he discovers love letters that are 25 years old and which document that she had an affair with his best friend! He throws her clothes out, confronts the friend, but it is just one more indicator that his life has been dull, routine, and close to meaningless---and that is what the movie is all about.
Before his wife dies he begins to support a 6-year-old child in Tanzania through an “adoption” program. He starts to write the child letters along with the monthly check. The letters sometimes are full of anger as he starts to ventilate after years of living a very controlled life. (His wife wouldn’t even let him pee standing up, he had to sit down when he peed.)
He decides to go and visit his daughter, his only child, who is marrying a man that Schmidt feels is not good enough---but she doesn’t want him around in the middle of her wedding planning efforts. So he starts to just drive around the country and eventually ends up getting to his daughter’s place in time for the wedding.
The family of the man his daughter is marrying is close to dysfunctional and definitely not as controlled or conservative as Schmidt. But they are not presented as an alternative to the controlled life of Schmidt. We never see a meaningful alternative lifestyle presented. It is all rather deadening……………
But Schmidt keeps on writing the letters to the six year old boy and even includes a little extra to help him out. He eventually gets a response from the Nun who is caring for the boy. She explains that he enjoys getting his letters, even though he doesn’t read or write. And she includes a picture the boy has drawn. The picture shows a little boy holding the hand of a man---Schmidt. The picture is filled with promise, happiness, color---all the things that the drab life of Schmidt has been missing over the years. When Schmidt sees the picture he begins to cry and then a bright smile breaks out over his face and the movie is over.
It is interesting to compare this film to Nicholson’s life and career. Schmidt is nothing like Nicholson. Nicholson’s first important film is Easy Rider where he is playing the opposite of a Schmidt type of person---he is a rebel, an outsider. In another film, Five Easy Pieces, he goes to a restaurant and orders a meal and gets into a confrontation with the waitress. In About Schmidt they filmed a similar restaurant scene, only this time Schmidt is compliant and avoids the confrontation with the waitress. It is a very symbolic scene---unfortunately it was cut from the movie. But that is the basic message of the film---that we need to confront, we need to not just let life pass us by. The wonderful part of the message is that we all have options and even little ones, like supporting an orphan child in Africa, can make a profound difference in our lives.
So, what are you doing to ensure that your life does not become like Schmidt’s life? Remember, the years can slip on by and a boring, complacent, conservative life can sneak right up on you and bite you in the ass!
It is also very interesting to compare About Schmidt with another recent film set in England called Last Orders (2001). This film has a wonderful cast. Jack is played by Michael Caine; Vic, his friend, is an undertaker played by Tom Courtney (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner); Lenny, another friend and former boxer, is played by David Hemmings (Blow Up); Ray, his buddy since World War II and an inveterate better on the horses, is played by Bob Hoskins. Ray is long divorced and has a daughter who lives in Australia. Ray also has had an affair long ago with Jack’s wife Amy.
Most of the movie is about the friends taking Jack’s ashes to the ocean to throw them in which is his request---his “last orders”---and since the friends often met at a pub, the title also refers to that as the bartender says when it comes close to closing: “last orders”. The movie is about long term relationships, about the ups and downs of those relationships, about acceptance and commitment. Jack could never accept his only child as she was retarded. Amy has visited her daughter regularly at the home where she was placed for 50 years. The only times she failed to make her weekly visit was for a short period years ago when she had the affair with Ray. At the end of the movie the ashes are thrown and we are left with the impression that Ray and Amy are going to leave England and move to Australia and live together.
Jack and Amy also raised a son, Vince, played by Ray Winstone, but this boy was adopted and the relationship between father and son was strained as Jack expected Vince to go into the family butcher shop business with him and instead Vince opened a successful car dealership.
For me this film was very different than it will be for anyone that is younger than me. I have known these actors for many years through their films. I have had a long and intimate relationship with each of them. The film is based on the fine prize winning novel by Graham Swift. In some ways it may be easier to read the book than watch the movie due to the hard to follow accents of the characters in the movie. But if you can understand the language, the film is very rewarding and informs you about relationships that are long term.