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About Schmidt
I'm not very good at seeking out great works of art. Usually I only find them by chance or because someone goes out of their way to show them to me. Joe Krause has exposed me to probably more than half of the non-classical music that I like. And I would never have seen About Schmidt if not for Kevin McGillen. It's one of those movies that is so good that it feels like it was made specifically for me, exploring the themes of life in the Midwest, loneliness, rejection, and the inevitability of death.

(This post contains some spoilers and probably shouldn't be read by those who haven't seen the movie.)



The film begins at the moment Warren Schmidt retires from his career as an actuary at Woodmen of the World in Omaha--a city that symbolizes the American ideals of its courageous pioneer founders and the enterprising capitalists who built the largest stockyards in the world. Warren Schmidt, however, represents a different kind of American experience. He has lived a safe, mediocre and risk-free life, having earned a degree in business and statistics and pursuing a career in insurance. He is so conservative and pedantic that he cannot even stand up from his desk before exactly 5:00 p.m. on his last day at work, despite having nothing left to do--holding onto his final delusions of accomplishment and importance.



Warren's retirement dinner is at a steakhouse decorated with photographs of prizewinning cattle--beasts adorned with their blue ribbons before being trucked off to the slaughterhouse. The camera looks into the eyes of one of the doomed animals before cutting to Warren's own portrait displayed at the dinner in his honor. After a few pleasant words are delivered by the young man taking over his job, Warren's friend and colleague Ray stands up to attempt a contrastingly candid speech. "What I want to say," he says, half-jokingly, is that the party, gifts, and these other "superficialities" don't mean "a goddamn thing."



Ray's frankness segues into what he believes to be sincerity:

What means something--what really means something, Warren--is the knowledge that you devoted your life to something meaningful, to being productive, and working for a fine company--hell, one of the top-rated insurance carriers in the nation!--to raising a fine family, building a fine home, being respected by your community, to having wonderful, lasting friendships.

At the end of his career, if a man can look back and say, "I did it. I did my job," then he can retire in glory and enjoy riches far beyond the monetary kind. So, all of you young people here, take a good look at a very rich man!

Everyone who hears the speech appears to be genuinely moved by it except for the man to whom it was addressed. The unintentional irony of Ray's speech disturbs Warren so deeply that he quietly leaves the room to sit at the bar and have a drink alone.



Retired life is predictably vapid for Warren. The only joy in his life is his daughter Jeannie, who lives in Denver and is engaged to a waterbed salesman named Randall. The hardest part of watching this movie is enduring Randall's infuriating and awkward stupidity.

After seeing a TV commercial for ChildReach--a real-life Third World child sponsorship charity--Warren calls the number on his screen in a feeble attempt at regaining a sense of purpose. He receives a packet in the mail about his sponsored child, Ndugu, which instructs him to send personal letters. Having no one else to open up to, his thoughts and feelings end up spilling out in his letters, which also serve as the film's narrative device.



Although Jeannie's wedding is still some time away, Warren attempts to surprise her by driving down early in his new RV, ironically named "The Adventurer". The "surprise" only irritates her and she tells him to stay away until two days before the wedding as planned. Warren sheepisly complies, and passes the time visiting tourist destinations, his former college, and the neighborhood he grew up in.



At an RV park, Warren meets fellow travelers John and Vicki Rusk, a couple who are everything he is not--happy, outgoing, and close to their family. They invite him to their RV for dinner, where the three of them spend the evening drinking beer and looking through the Rusk's photo albums. This is the only scene where Warren expresses anything like unguarded happiness, having finally found companionship.



When John goes out for more beer, Vicki brings up something that has been bothering her:

Warren, would you mind if I made an observation? ... Well, you put a pretty good face on things, considering everything you've been through lately. And, I know I've just met you, but, I have good instinct about people. And the feeling that I get from you is that, despite your good attitude, and your positive outlook, I think inside, you're a sad man.

Warren gently deflects her words, saying he's simply adjusting to recent life changes. Vicki insists:

But there's something more than that. I see something more than grief and loss in you. Something deeper....

I just met you but--my guess is--anger. Yeah, anger and--I don't know, maybe--fear? Loneliness?

Vicki's observation gets through to Warren, and he admits that he is lonely. But then the scene gets awkward. As Warren becomes more (drunkenly) open and uninhibited, he clumsily makes pass at her. She screams at him to leave, and he runs back to his RV and drives away. Warren instantly and permanently alienates the only people whose company he enjoys when foolishly attempting to act more free and spontaneous.


Warren runs from the Rusk's RV.


On the road the following day, Warren happens to drive next to a cattle truck. He looks at the animals inside who, like him, are powerless over their destiny, but "enjoying" the outdoors as well as they can from the confines of a metal box rushing down the freeway, before their impending and inevitable deaths.





That night, contemplating the life that he has lived, Warren looks up at the stars, speaking to his dead wife:

What did you really think of me? Deep in your heart. Was I really the man you wanted to be with? Was I? Or were you disappointed--too nice to show it....

I let you down. I'm sorry, Helen. Can you forgive me?

The following morning, Warren writes to Ndugu that his "night in the wilderness" had "completely transformed" him. "I know what I want--I know what I have to do," he writes. His mission is to stop his daughter from marrying her low-class and buffoonish fiancee. Warren's wife was deprived of a lifetime of happiness by settling for a boring and complacent man--but it's not too late to rescue Jeannie from the same fate. Warren's last opportunity for redemption now depends on saving her from the same disappointing and mediocre life he inflicted upon her mother.


Jeannie and Randall at their wedding rehearsal.


Unfortunately, Warren's only plan is to beg Jeannie not to go through with the wedding, which only makes her defiant. "You listen to me," she tells him, "I am getting married the day after tomorrow and you are going to come to my wedding, and you are going to sit there and enjoy it and support me or else you can just turn right around right now and go back to Omaha."

Warren spends that night in the home of Randall's mother, Roberta, but the waterbed he sleeps on gives him an unbearable kink in his neck the next morning. Roberta convinces him to soak in the hottub in the back yard to help him relax the following evening. He enjoys it for the first few minutes until Roberta unexpectedly joins him. And then the audience has to endure Cathy Bates' nudity.


"Mind if I join you?"


Although embarrassed, Warren just barely tolerates the situation. That is, until Roberta makes a pass at him. He excuses himself and runs back to The Adventurer. I really love the way this image mirrors the scene where Warren flees John and Vicki Rusk's RV. He runs in the same direction in each shot, and the identical musical cue plays in both.


Warren runs away from Roberta Hertzel's home.


In one of these parallel scenes, Warren is rejected by someone he feels drawn to, and in the other, he does not want the company of someone who feels drawn to him. He runs away both times, and now he is completely alone. He spends that night in his RV--a vehicle intended for going out into and experiencing the world, but so far has only served as his means of self-isolation.

There is one more scene that beautifully parallels one from earlier in the film. The wedding occurs following day, where Warren meekly obeys his daughter's command to "sit there" and support her. At the reception, when the best man finishes his speech, the microphone is unexpectedly handed to Warren, who at first is only able to mutter a few pleasant words. Then, in imitation of Ray's speech at his retirement party, Warren says, "That brings me to what I really want to say." The setups of both scenes are similar--both are celebrations where the guests of honor are seated at banquet tables next to a table filled with gifts. Both parties are intended to mark the beginning of many many years of happiness--which, of course, will never come. "What I want to say, what I really want to say is..."



Instead of delivering the candid speech that we want to hear, Warren insincerely "compliments" his son-in-law and heaps empty "praise" onto his new extended family. Maybe Warren acted out of cowardice by not making the speech he really wanted to. But I like to think that, in that instant, he remembered the stinging irony of Ray's speech, and he chose instead to deliver warmly-spoken sarcasm, knowing that Jeannie would understand that his true feelings are the exact opposite of every word he spoke. As in the earlier scene, everyone appears to be genuinely moved by the speech except for one person--Jeannie, in this instance. As before, Warren immediately leaves the room to be alone.

The next day Warren returns to Omaha, during which we hear his final letter to Ndugu.




Dear Ndugu,

You'll be glad to know that Jeanie's wedding came off without a hitch. Right now she and Randall are on their way to sunny Orlando. On my nickel, of course.

As for me, I'm headed back to Omaha. I'm driving straight through this time, and I've made only one stop--the impressive new arch over the interstate in Kearney, Nebraska--an arch that commemorates the courage and determination of the pioneers who crossed the state on their way West.

You've really got to see it to believe it. And it kind of got me thinking. Looking at all that history and reflecting on the achievements of people long ago kind of put things into perspective. My trip to Denver, for instance, is so insignificant compared to the journeys that others have taken, the bravery that they've shown, the hardships they've endured.

I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?

When I was out in Denver, I tried to do the right thing, tried to convince Jeanie she was making a big mistake. But I failed. Now she's married to that nincompoop, and there's nothing I can do about it.

I am weak.

And I am a failure.

There's just no getting around it.

Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in twenty years. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn't matter. Once I am dead, and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed.

What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.

Hope things are fine with you.

Yours Truly,

Warren Schmidt



Warren returns to his empty home.

There are several places to get ice cream in Detroit. I will buy some and then pretend that it's not the kind I wanted and set it on top of the trash can on my way out for reclamation.

And lololo at the graphic at the end of the last post.

Harbortown has vegan ice cream. Treat Dreams in Ferndale has "homemade" vegan ice cream served in sugar cones. I actually still have some vegan ice cream in my freezer, so I should be good.

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