This 2002 comedy-drama film was directed by Alexander Payne. It starred Jack Nicholson in one of the first roles where he was truly starting to enter old age.
An interesting character study follows, with the film exploring the nature of retirement and what it means to have all this spare time after you leave work.
Themes of Marriage, Retirement, and Widowhood in About Schmidt
Retirement—at 38, for us it seems a few months away just right now. But films like About Schmidt help us understand what to expect come summer 2023 when we decide this working lark isn’t for us anymore.
Meet Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson). At the start of the narrative, he’s an actuary with a company called Woodmen of the World (life insurance).
On his final day, after packing up his office, he’s left to count down the final few seconds before his working life is over. Note the unbridled joy on his face.
For his retirement dinner, he gets a fun send off from the company.
But then he’s done. And in his retirement, having been important in his job, he now starts to feel a little bit useless. He has a brief attempt to return to work and teach his replacement a thing or two, only to find the heavily educated young man whirling away with no problems.
Bored at home, Schmidt has a complacent relationship with his long-term wife and takes her for granted.
Generally, he’s just going around being a bit cantankerous.
On a random whim, he sponsors a child in Tanzania and begins sending rambling correspondence to the boy offloading his petty frustrations.
And then he buys a Winnebago to go off adventuring. However, his wife suddenly dies whilst at home. Nicholson’s acting upon finding her—his shock and distress—we think is a reminder of how impressive he was as an actor.
What follows is a tragicomedy and one of Nicholson’s best career performances, with Schmidt displaying a mixture of disappointment, depression, and regret about his life’s achievements.
In the end, he heads off in the Winnebago in mean-spirited fashion.
His goal? To disrupt his daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davis) wedding. Simply because he doesn’t like the geezer she’s intending to marry.
Along the way, Schmidt embarrasses himself by making an ill-advised pass on another woman his age. Behaves like a crotchety old git.
And yet continues sending the letters out to the boy in Tanzania.
Not that he really cares about the boy, through the letters he’s found a process of self-reflection and personal expression (like keeping a diary, or running a blog, or YouTube channel). This helps him understand his lot in life—just by ranting.
When he returns home from his misguided Winnebago adventures, he finds a letter from the charity in Tanzania. A nun explains to Schmidt the boy is six and can’t understand his letters, but understands the gesture.
She includes a drawing from the boy of Ndugu and Schmidt holding hands, which causes the retiree to burst into tears.
Not that we can relate to this type of film, as we have no idea what it’s like to retire, or to reach older age (yet). But About Schmidt, and others such as Le Week-End (2013), have at least given us a sense of perspective on the process.
How, for some people, retirement isn’t something to celebrate.
For others, it may well be.
But we think About Schmidt is a fine film. One well worth revisiting, not least as it marked one of Nicholson’s great final performances before the end of his most noteworthy of careers.
The Production of About Schmidt
The belated irony of this film is Jack Nicholson, who’s now 86, retired from acting in 2010. He seems to lead a secluded life now, only spotted by paparazzi a couple of weeks ago for the first time in two years.
When someone is as famous as him, and having had such a spectacular life, the press criticism for taking himself into seclusion is a bit stupid.
What he does with his retirement is down to him.
Over 20 years on since the film launched, some are now considering it one of his best performance (such as Georg Rockall-Schmidt in the analysis below).
The film was actually quite a big hit. Off its $30 million budget, it raked back in $105.8 million worldwide. Not bad for a film essentially about a major existential crisis.
Alexander Payne actually wrote the script in 1991, but studios rejected it.
In 1996, a novel by Louis Begley was published with the same name. Payne decided to combine that with his screenplay to work as a semi-adaptation of sorts.
The film was shot in two months across Nebraska (of America, duh). Filming wrapped in May 2001. Nicholson was acknowledged for his work, receiving an Oscar nomination.
He didn’t win that, but he and Payne both won gongs at the 60th Golden Globe Awards. Not bad going, eh?