A poignant film about the definition of success.
About Schmidt follows Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a veteran actuary of the Woodmen of the World insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. Schmidt is a polite, measured man surrounded by people who are commonly quite the opposite.
There are flashes of his broad, mischievous smile and roguish charm, but Nicholson reels in his iconic charisma, he effortlessly becomes the respectable, disconcerted Middle American and is as magnetic and watchable as usual.
The film begins in a desolate office as Schmidt stares at a clock that adorns a bare, grey wall as the final minute of his interminable career ticks by. He then enters something of a catatonic state, his blank expression displaying ambiguous yet decidedly dissatisfied emotions. He attends his retirement dinner, witnessing overlong, self-indulgent speeches from colleagues both old and new. He also drops by his old office to speak with his replacement who was so very charming at the dinner yet so indifferent afterwards. Throughout these scenes Schmidt retains his composure, reserving any judgement on his rapidly changing life.
As he sits at home unsure what to do with himself, he watches an advert appealing for the viewer to sponsor an African child. He does so, and is soon funding and corresponding with a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu; it is his first letter to Ndugu that provides the first big laugh in the film. As he puts pen to paper, Schmidt boils over and rants about his cocky upstart of a replacement, his daughter’s fiancée, his failure to achieve ‘semi-importance’, his wife’s annoying habits and his somewhat emasculating subservience to her.
Soon after this letter, his wife passes away. Schmidt then begins to reflect on every aspect of his life, even wondering if his wife was the soul mate she was supposed to be.
The film is about the nature of success. Schmidt’s definition of success is leaving an impression during one’s existence, making a difference. He doesn’t aspire to be Henry Ford or Walt Disney, he draws the line far below that level of success, however he wants to be ‘semi-important’ at least.
What exactly does Schmidt mean by ‘semi-important’? By striving for something that he hasn’t precisely defined he has set himself up for disappointment. The only way in which most people make a profound difference is by continuing their lineage, creating new people and a myriad of new experiences – I think that is entirely honourable. The main objective isn’t to shake the system up but to enjoy yourself.
Personally, I think Schmidt has been a success; his hard graft will provide for generations to come, as long as his self-absorbed, high maintenance daughter isn’t foolish. His life’s greatest flaw was his wife, he had no connection with her, they were on very different wavelengths. He could have divorced her, but that would have most likely had negative effects on his daughter; he arguably did the righteous, selfless thing by sticking with her.
Some feel the ending is bathetic, which is understandable. I thought Schmidt was being too hard on himself, but it seems he filled a very personal void in the film’s final moments, so that has to be a good thing.
I have written about these characters as if I know them, which is testament to the existential resonance of About Schmidt.