ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002, Alexander Payne, screenplay with Jim Taylor from Louis Begley’s novel)
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.
Starting with the toast at Warren’s retirement party, an old work buddy paying him tribute with the abrasive wisdom of a half-soused Solomon, this movie resides not only in the heart of America’s Midwest, but at the centre of Old Testament wisdom literature. You can read it in Jack Nicholson's sad-eyed, tight-mouthed, ever-so-weary face: it’s all vanity. A chasing after wind.
Approaching the end of his days – days he’s spent numbering; he’s an insurance actuary – a man begins examining his thus-far unexamined life and wonders if it’s been worth living. And so, in the finest of American movie traditions, he decides to head out on the highway looking for... Well, whatever it is he’s missing. It’s EASY RIDER in a Winnebago (“Born To Be Mild”?), a Bing Crosby / Bob Hope vehicle with no Hope. Call it ROAD TO DENVER, a buddy-less buddy movie.
ABOUT SCHMIDT is a confounding film, as hard to get a handle on as the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, a comparison theologian Robert K. Johnston details in Useless Beauty. We want to believe that if you just do the right thing, set aside your risky, irresponsible schemes and live out the unspectacular kind of charity that begins at home, it’ll all work out for the best. Like it did for Jimmy Stewart in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But Solomon ain’t buying it. Neither are Taylor or Payne.
Some find this director smug, his attitude toward characters condescending, judgmental, mocking: others see affection, sometimes respect, even grace, eventually. The truth lies at neither pole. Payne both criticizes and cherishes, shows the good alongside the bad, tips the scale back and forth with masterful, disorienting precision.
Sometimes the job of the artist is to bring the bad news. Without it, the good can be sentimental and self-deceiving. If something’s rotten in the state of, say, Nebraska, shouldn’t somebody say something?
ELECTION, IKIRU, THE STRAIGHT STORY, MILLIONS
Long version, rough draft
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002, Alexander Payne, screenplay with Jim Taylor from Louis Begley novel)
I am weak. And I'm 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.
The blank faced, sad eyed, tight mouthed Warren Schmidt might almost be Auden’s Unknown Citizen, “one against whom there was no official complaint / And all the reports on his conduct agree / That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.” Ah, but in the true sense? “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”
At his retirement banquet a buddy from the old days begins paying tribute with the wisdom of a half-soused Solomon – not the know-it-all wise guy of the biblical Book of Proverbs, but the sadder, wiser preacher of Ecclesiastes. "All those gifts over there don't mean a god damn thing. And this dinner doesn’t mean a god damn thing. And the social security and pension don’t mean a god damn thing. None of these superficialities mean a god damn thing.” The truth of his words is reflected in Warren’s weary face: it’s all vanity.
But when Ray moves on to really does mean something, we begin to wonder if he still speaks the Bible truth. What matters, according to Ray’s living epistle to the Nebraskans, 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 companies in the nation. To raising a fine family, to building a fine home, to 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 you young people here, take a good look at a very rich man.” Warren is also unconvinced: the effort required to muster the requisite smile in response to the oracle’s words exhausts our hero, and he excuses himself to seek out the company of a vodka gimlet in the lonely bar. Approaching the end of his days – days he has spent his life numbering, in his job as an insurance actuary – Warren begins to examine his so-far unexamined life, and wonders if it’s been worth living.
ABOUT SCHMIDT is a confounding movie – as confounding as the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, which theologian Robert K. Johnston finds to be the centre of this film’s power and meaning. What kind of comedy offers a guided tour of the futility of a decent, well-meaning man’s life? What kind of Bible verse goes “In spite of all our work there is nothing we can take with us. It isn’t right! We go just as we came. We labor, trying to catch the wind, and what do we get? We get to live our lives in darkness and grief, worried, angry, and sick.” I don’t recall memorizing that one in Sunday School.
It seems so wrong. We want to believe that if you just do the right thing, if you set aside your riskier, larger ambitions – Warren would have loved to see his smiling picture on the cover of Fortune 500, “Schmidt Int’l blows the bell curve with its out-of-this-world performance” – and focus on the good of others, do the unspectacular kind of charity that begins at home, it’ll all work out for the best. Like it did for Jimmy Stewart in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. You’ve got job responsibilities, a family to support, your wife could never handle the strain of risky enterpeneurship, so you settle. I mean, that’s the gospel, isn’t it? Self-sacrifice? Laying down your life, your self-aggrandizing dreams, for others? You go to church, you do it by the book, take on adult responsibilities, you do what makes your wife happy – and then you find it’s left you with this? No job, no hobbies except channel surfing, a wife you can’t stand, a daughter who can’t stand you, and one friend – who you find out has been schlepping your wife. A chasing after wind.
So in the finest of American movie traditions, Warren takes to the open road in search of... Well, whatever it is he’s lacking – in an absurdly oversized Winnebago, the fruit of a dutiful career. Ultimately this is a road movie, the kind of picaresque buddy picture that’s low on plot but big on self-discovery, where a couple of guys (or gals, if they’re named THELMA AND LOUISE) head out on the highway looking for adventure and... Well, self-discovery, America, meaning, friendship. Whatever comes their way. This is ROAD TO DENVER, and Warren plays Bob Hope to... Well, to whose Bing Crosby? Turns out ABOUT SCHMIDT is the saddest thing of all, a buddy-less buddy movie. At the outset, Warren’s only apparent buddy called him a rich man, but it turns out he’s ended up without even George Bailey’s legacy: he has no friends.
Except Ndugu, an African orphan to whom he’s begun sending his dutiful twenty-two bucks a month. He even goes the extra mile, enclosing a personal note. And lacking anybody in his real life to talk to, Warren pours out his heart – wildly inappropriately (“Goddammit if they didn’t replace me with some kid who doesn’t know a damn thing about genuine real-world risk assessment or managing a department for that matter – cocky bastard!”), and bracketed with the conventional wisdom of Warren’s world whose absurdity reveals itself in juxtaposition to Third World realities (“I highly recommend you pledge a fraternity when you go to college”). There’s also delicious irony in the gap between what Warren writes and what we see; after reporting his wife’s passing (“I hope you’re sitting down...”), he observes (Solomon-like) that death awaits everyone, life is short and he’s got to make the best of whatever time he has left – as we see him fall asleep in front of the TV. “I can’t afford to waste another minute.” Fade to black, white title appears: “Two weeks later.” Fade up on the same face, a bit puffier, a bit more stubble, sleeping in front of the same screen, wearing the same pajamas. I love the complexity: it’s an on-the-nose illustration of the gap between Warren’s words and his actions, between his perceptions and reality, a portrait I suppose of self-delusion. But it’s also a terribly sad, completely understandable snapshot of a lonely man grieving the loss of his wife, cut loose from his place in the world. (Don’t let anybody – even Robert McKee – tell you that voice-overs are flaccid, sloppy writing, shortcut explanations of a character’s thoughts. One of the great subtleties of twentieth century fiction is the complexity of the unreliable narrator: in the hands of an Alexander Payne or a DAYS OF HEAVEN Terrence Malick, the dissonance between what’s said and what’s seen is the essence of an artistry that does anything but condescend to the viewer or explain itself away.)
Viewers are as fiercely divided on this film as they are over ELECTION, the director’s other great assault on standard-issue mid-American values, the received wisdom of good old meat-and-potatoes Protestant work-ism. But Rob Johnston maintains that if the attack on dearly held convictions grates on us, it’s meant to – just as the disorienting words of Ecclesiastes are intended to smack us hard, shake loose our well-thought-through answers and confront us with the gap between what we want to think and what we’re afraid to face.
The job of art – heck, the job of prophets, let’s come out and say it – is to interrogate our presuppositions. We take offense when it’s suggested that these things we value are weighed in the balance and found wanting – our jobs, our churches, our families, our inadequate charity, our half-failed attempts to be responsible, to do what’s required of us. Are these things really so bad? No, of course they’re not bad – or at least, they’re not necessarily bad. But what about when they go bad? What if the day comes when all of a sudden they turn out not actually to be enough? It’s those days that draw the attention of the artist, if not the entertainer – those hard questions, the questions maybe without answers. (What answers do you find in Ecclesiastes? It may be there, in fact I think it is – so does Mr Johnston – but it’s damned elusive. No wonder so many artists love that book so.) Perhaps Alexander Payne’s calling is to bring the bad news that must always precede the good – without which the good news is nothing but sentimentality and self-deception. If something’s rotten in the state of, well, Nebraska, isn’t it somebody’s job to point that out? First the tragedy, then the comedy – or in Payne’s case, a whole lot of both, all at the same time.
(A moment’s digression, to talk more about this bad news – the film’s idea of what may be at the heart of Warren’s lostness, and maybe that of a whole culture around him. Let’s take a moment to say just a word about compliance, repression and passive aggression. Could it be that these are Warren’s besetting sins? The fundamental dishonesties, the endless small acts of moral and relational cowardice that have, over time, corroded his soul. Watch as he relates to his wife, watch the veiled resentment as he shrinks, contorts and limits himself to fit her peculiarities and foibles, mistaking preferences for commands, turning her into a tyrant, to the point where he’s become the surly slave, she the caricature of the harsh taskmaster. And it’s not only in his marriage, or his workplace, that he’s shrunk himself too small: watch the man, or what’s left of a man, comply himself to death in a marvelous scene, deleted from the final cut of the film, where he orders breakfast the morning after his transcendent experience on the rooftop of the Winnebago;
I awoke from my night in the wilderness completely transformed. I'm like a new man. For the first time in years, I feel clear. I know what I want, I know what I've got to do, and nothing's going to stop me ever again.So much for good intentions. It’s a brilliant scene, funny, revealing. Even if you don’t recognize the riff on Jack Nicholson’s iconic scene in FIVE EASY PIECES, three decades prior;
Can I take your order?
Um, I'd like a plain omlette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, cup of coffee and wheat toast.
Oh. Fine. I'll just have the potatoes.
I'd like a plain omelet. No potatoes. Tomatoes instead. A cup of coffeeA scene that spoke the heart of a fed-up generation, mad as hell and not going to take it any more – however immature and petulant, there was something right about that kind of insistence, discontent, resistance. How terrifying to think this later, echoing scene might be an equally accurate summation of the spirit of our corporate times, with people reduced to compliant consumers, sad and ineffectual and more than willing to take whatever “it” is so long as we don’t make a fuss. Suddenly those cattle cars Schmidt keeps noticing look like something more than just local color. So maybe his bland-as-white-sauce probably-Lutheran pastor was right, way back there at the funeral, in spite of all the insipidity: “I want to tell you about anger. Anger is okay. God can handle it if we’re angry at him. And I’ll tell you why....)
and wheat toast.
What do you mean? You don't have any tomatoes?
Only what's on the menu. You can have number two, a plain omelet. It comes with fries and rolls.
I know, but it's not what I want.
Make up your mind.
I have made up my mind. I'd like a plain omelet. No potatoes on the plate. A cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
I'm sorry, we don't have any side orders of toast. I'll give you an English muffin or a coffee roll.
No side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don't you?
Would you like to talk to the manager?
You've got bread and a toaster of some kind?
I don't make the rules.
I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like a plain omelet and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee.
A number two. A chicken sal san.
Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee.
Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for a chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken
You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
I want you to hold it between your knees.
You see that sign, sir? You'll all have to leave, I'm not taking any more of your smartness and your sarcasm.
You see this sign? (He reaches his arm out and "clears" the table for her. Dishes, menus, cutlery crash to the floor.)
If some find the film offensive for its attack on perfectly good middle class values, others find even more offense in what they take as an attack on perfectly good middle class people. It’s one thing to make fun of a culture, it’s quite another to make fun of people: that’s personal, and mean spirited. Some find Payne smug, his satire vicious (or, even worse, obvious), his attitude toward his characters condescending. But I maintain that the beauty or beastliness of Payne's characters (or of his attitudes toward his characters) is very much in the eye of the beholder: where another sees ugly mockery and harsh judgment, I see an affection, sometimes even a respect, always eventually a grace that’s sublime, amazing, beautiful. The truth lies at neither pole: Payne both criticizes and cherishes, the good right next to the bad, tipping the scale back and forth from scene to scene, moment to moment, with masterful (and disorienting) precision. Which perspective we most readily respond to, and – more importantly, I suppose – which one we decide after more careful consideration ultimately predominates, will always be a highly subjective judgment call that may reveal as much about ourselves as it does about Payne, about Schmidt, or about the Rusks.
Or about Randall. Oh my gosh. The gormless son-in-law to be. To my mind, one of the film’s great accomplishments is the way we swing between loathing and loving this guileless guy. Of course, it’s Schmidt’s movie, and we can never be sure when we’re viewing the overgrown kid through the eyes of his almost-father-in-law – there’s there’s something like the unreliable narrator thing going on even there. And face it, isn’t Randall – a mulleted, mustachioed momma’s boy of a waterbed salesman who approaches you in your moment of grief with a pyramid scheme – your worst nightmare in the potential-husband-for-your-darling-daughter department? Or is he? An unpretentious, earnest young guy who says what he thinks and feels what he feels – and the most important thing he feels is immense, foolish love for your daughter. No wonder she’s drawn to him and his messy, emotive, soulful, sensual family. Tacky be damned! At least they’re alive.
One usually perceptive friend finds the film’s portrayal of John and Vicki Rusk, the welcoming Winnebago neighbors, unforgivably condescending. I see a pretty straightforward picture of just plain decent prairie folk – a lot like many in my immense circle of relatives, truth be told – who may have smile-worthy mid-west accents and less-than-sophisticated conversational strategies (not to mention tastes in decor that, shall we say, I do not share), but who offer open-hearted warmth and companionship to a desperately lonely man. And frankly, Vicki’s perceptiveness (even wisdom) about the precarious state of her new friend’s soul – “I see something more than grief and loss in you. Something deeper. I just met you but my guess is anger. Anger and, I don’t know, maybe fear?” – and her disingenuous willingness to talk with him about these matters of the heart, things that really matter, came as a stunning surprise to me: I was so taken aback by her directness that I was instantly suspicious, fearing an embarrassing scene of heavy-handed evangelism – just as Warren himself assumes that Vicki is driven by some unspoken agenda of her own. Nope. She just cared, and said something. How functional! How human! And how sad that Mr and Mrs Schmidt have so starved themselves of these simple, direct, soul-feeding things that he (and his daughter, for that matter) have become so desperate for a thing like simple friendship and affection. Know what I think? That viewers who believe John and Vicki are being viewed through a directorial perspective of judgment and urbane condescension may be mistaking their own lenses and prejudices for those of Mr Payne.
And what do you make of that final scene? Maudlin, a tacked-on, unearned – a sentimental reversal, too little too late? Not nearly enough good to counter a lifetime of not good enough? If you’re inclined to think that the filmmakers intend those tears to signal a complete change of heart for old Warren, a new journey into selflessness, then you’ll likely find it unconvincing, a bit of an indulgence in wishful thinking. If you figure the letter is meant to stand as a resounding “All is not lost! You are making a difference in the world, Warren, your life does mean something!” then I’d have to agree – it seems pathetic that an aid agency’s form letter should mark the sum total of all the good this man has ever done.
But I believe this movie’s final moments border on the sublime: that there’s an inscrutability to this man’s tears, and an authenticity, that lift the film to a level of genuine artistry and un-pin-downable spiritual truth. We cannot know precisely why Warren Schmidt begins to weep. Is this grief for a life utterly empty, a recognition the self-serving nature of his own actions in contrast with the deeply self-denying commitment of Sister Nadene Gautier? Is this perhaps the first moment in the film that isn’t tainted with self-deception, passive-aggressive compliance or misguided meddlesomeness – with folly? Are we witnessing the sort of divine humbling that might, just might, be the forerunner to wisdom?
Robert Johnston sees it all coming down to something as profoundly simple, as primal, as human as the recognition that, though his work has been in vain, though all of his strivings have ended up only a chasing after wind, that there remains the ineluctable reality of Ndugu’s painting – of human conection, the “Two are better off than one” that Ecclesiastes also comes down to after all its hard truths.
I see a miracle of sorts, a heart-breaking that isn’t unearned or at all sudden, that follows from this poor man’s terribly long journey from which he returns to an empty home empty-handed, stripped of illusions, and alone. A man who has been reduced to nothing. All the things he has built into his life for security, protection, meaning have been stripped away. He’s concluded that he is of absolutely no value: “What in the world is better because of me? 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.” I call that repentance. I call that sorrow. I call that the absolute, destitute poverty of spirit that maybe ushers in the kingdom of heaven, at least according to Jesus.
The note from Sister Nadene, and the painting that comes with it, taste like a banquet to a soul as hungry as this one. It may not amount to a resounding “Well done, good and faithful servant” from the lips of God himself, but who could expect that? It is, at least, a small but genuine “thank you” from one of God’s servants – and that will do for now. (And that voice! The speaker uncredited anywhere I can find. I’ve got to think that’s a real Sister of the Sacred Heart. It rings, it scratches, it resounds with hard-lived authority, experience, sacrifice, humility – the legacy of a life well-lived. Everything that Warren Schmidt’s life, ultimately has not been about. Alas.)
If we exaggerate the value of Schmidt’s tiny act of generosity, particularly in the context of everything else he has and has done (and has not done), we sentimentalize what is after all a very tiny gesture. The hope at the end of ABOUT SCHMIDT is a small, fragile hope. Does 22 bucks a month counter-balance a life that doesn’t really amount to Schmidt? Does his drop in the bucket really buy him anything like the kingdom of God? Will the rich old former ruler sell his Winnebago, give his money to the poor and follow Sister Nadene into happiness and meaning in the African mission field? Seems unlikely. That’s too much to hope for.
But I think a mustard seed-sized hope is just the right size for the small thing that this man’s soul has been reduced to. We can’t know exactly what Warren’s tears are for. Could be any of a number of things. But I suspect they’re at least two things at once. Grief that he’s done so little, has so little to show for it all – that grief that’s called regret, remorse, humility, maybe repentance – grief that his offering is so small, so inadequate. And relief, gratitude, even joy that the little he brought has been received, recognized, appreciated – that it has mattered. That he has mattered. Even just a little.
Not a lot, in the grand scheme of things. What are two loaves and a handful of fishes among so many? It’s not much. Not nearly enough. But it’s a little.
ELECTION, IKIRU, THE STRAIGHT STORY, MILLIONS
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