About Schmidt

| Published on

By James Bowman

Print Friendly


This summer James Bowman is presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of “The Pursuit of Happiness.” The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go here for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 27th with About Schmidt by Alexander Payne, starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney. Before showing the film, Mr. Bowman spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

To those of you who are returning after a two week hiatus to the fifth in our six movies on the theme of the Pursuit of Happiness, welcome back. To those who have missed any or all of the first four movies, I should say that they dated from the 1930s and 1940s and they showed us an America in which politically-inspired doubts during the Depression-era — doubts about individual wealth, and its acquisition, and the behavior of those who had acquired it were gradually giving way to a post-war belief in economic dynamism and individual ambition. The advertising business was prominently featured in two of those movies, Christmas in July by Preston Sturges, from 1940, and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, from 1948, in part because they wanted to show us how Americans had bought into the assumption behind the newly dominant advertising industry — the assumption that, as somebody pointed out in our discussion of Mr Blandings two weeks ago, money can buy happiness.

I said at the end of my talk on that movie that we are still living in that world, more than 60 years later, though I didn't mean by that to imply that our confidence in the felicific properties of money has remained as untroubled as it may have appeared to be in 1948. Far from it. We remain what has since come to be called a “consumerist” society and culture largely because nobody has yet thought of a persuasive way out of it, though there have been some attempts, from religious revivalism, from political radicalism and from environmental puritanism to talk us out of our addiction to consumption. None of these has made any significant political impact, although rhetorical obeisance to some of their favorite pieties, particularly those of the environmental movement, has become what has taken the place of political thought for some on the left.

The consumer society, that is, may be unpopular in theory but we remain unshakeably attached to it in practice. Moreover, we are also attached to its mythologies, as we saw again in the fourth season premiere of “Mad Men” on television the night before last. Chief among these mythologies, a word which I don't intend in any pejorative sense, is the idea that selling things is among the world's art forms and the one that Americans are particularly good at. Tonight's film, About Schmidt directed by Alexander Payne and co-written by him with Jim Taylor, may seem at first glance to have nothing to do with any of this. It is about a man, Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, at the moment of his retirement from a long career with one firm, the Woodmen of the World Insurance company of Omaha, and the sudden sense of emptiness he experiences as he looks back on a life that now seems meaningless, a failure. The American Dream — if we can use that tired and problematic expression for a moment — was for him what it was already beginning to appear to be in Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, something to be taken for granted.

And yet, unlike Cary Grant in the 1948 film, whom we leave at the moment of his enjoyment of the happiness he has created for himself, Jack Nicholson appears to himself to have nothing to show for having lived the dream for all those years with the Woodmen and nothing to look forward to in the life of leisure that awaits him in retirement. This is already apparent in the opening scene when we see Schmidt watching the clock in his office as five o'clock on his last day at work approaches. I'm not as a rule Jack Nicholson's biggest fan, but the amount of acting he is able to do just with his face in this movie is an achievement of the first order — and a necessary one, given the fact that he is portraying a man as emotionally bottled up as Schmidt is. This is just one of many differences between this movie and the novel by Louis Begley on which it is theoretically based.

Indeed, I know of no other adaptation of a novel that differs so completely from its original as About Schmidt. Almost the only thing from the novel that survives into the movie is its title. Even Schmidt, its main character, is called Al or Schmidtie in the novel and Warren in the movie. The novel's hero is a Harvard lawyer who worked for a white shoe firm in Manhattan and now lives in the Hamptons, not a fraternity man from the University of Kansas and mid-level insurance executive from Omaha like his not-quite namesake. It's true that both men are widowers who have a daughter (Charlotte in the novel, Jeannie in the movie) about to be married to men (Randall in the movie, Jon in the novel) they don't much care for, but even there the similarities are fewer than the differences. Al's prospective son-in-law is another sharp-elbowed lawyer from his old firm whose Jewishness he finds obscurely troubling, while Warren's is a thick-witted waterbed salesman from Denver whose unattractiveness as a son-in-law — together with that of his entire family as his prospective relations — is only too obvious.

The two men themselves are quite different as well. Louis Begley's Al Schmidt is rather a sexual adventurer and a practised seducer who has a fling with his daughter's prospective mother-in-law as well as a 20-year-old half Puerto Rican waitress who is a much more important character in the book than that Schmidt's priggish, selfish and unsympathetic daughter, Charlotte. Messrs Payne and Taylor's Warren Schmidt, by contrast, is a sexual innocent who makes an awkward and rejected pass at a woman he has just met and runs in panic from the sexual suggestiveness of his daughter's mother-in-law, Roberta, played unforgettably by Kathy Bates. His daughter Jeannie, played by Hope Davis, is not quite so unsympathetic as is Charlotte in the novel, partly because her estrangement from her father is a bit more understandable and appears to have something to do with his emotionally withholding nature.

Paradoxically, the novel is in some ways more cinematic, as we have come to understand the term in recent years anyway, than the movie. It has so much to do with the theme of Schmidt's self-discovery through sex that it comes perilously close to being a middle-aged male wish-fulfilment fantasy — the kind of thing we would expect more from schlocky and commercial Hollywood than a genteel lawyer-novelist and Harvard man like Louis Begley. The great, the wonderful irony of the movie, of which there is no hint in the book, is that there turns out to be more love, more truth, more self-discovery in Schmidt's emotional repression — which is presumably what has created the distance between him and his daughter — than there is in the gloriously vulgar emotional self-indulgence of the Hertzel family into which she is marrying so much against his will.

Warren Schmidt's speech at the wedding reception near the end of the film is to me one of the great moments in cinematic history — right up there with the laughter of Curtin and Howard at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre — because we know that, while every word of it is untrue to his real feelings, it is exactly the right thing for him to do. It also goes against the grain of its star, who made his reputation as an actor by being a “My Way” kind of guy. In one of the deleted scenes you can watch on the DVD, Mr Payne even included a sly allu
sion to his confrontation with a waitress in one of the most famous moments of Five Easy Pieces, Mr Nicholson's breakthrough film of 1970, only this time his character has meekly to accept the waitress's dictum that there are “no substitutions” allowed. So, too, does the picture go against the grain of the whole Hollywood movie culture and its long-running romance with personal authenticity and raw feeling. For once we're not allowed the easy satisfaction of a hero who bends the world to his will and instead find one whose acceptance of his own inability to change anything is much harder to bear and maybe even more impressive because it is closer to our own experience of things.

At any rate, his hero's passivity is all the more impressive because Alexander Payne has led us to expect something quite different. After Schmidt's epiphany under the stars on top of his Winnebago, he says he feels like a man transformed. At last, he says, he knows what he wants, what he has to do, and he insists that nothing can stop him. The moment of emotional liberation from a lifetime of repression — the moment, in short, that we have come to expect from Hollywood movies — has finally arrived. What could possibly follow but another movie-affirmation of the great American quest for personal authenticity? Yet, instead, the movie celebrates, of all things, repression and good manners, while authenticity comes off as being cheap, self-indulgent and even (dare one say it?) inauthentic — in, for instance, the self-written and cringe-making wedding vows of Jeannie and her dull-witted, mullet-headed Randall, played by Dermot Mulroney, or of randy Roberta's unlovely and unresolved anger towards her second ex-husband, Larry, played by Howard Hesseman.

The wedding reception near the end of the movie acts as a bookend with Warren's retirement party near the beginning. There, the authentic-inauthentic is represented by Ray (Len Cariou), Schmidt's best friend, who gives voice to the conventional piety that we all think we subscribe to and that repudiates the shockingly cynical and subversive advertising notion that money buys happiness. Ray gives a maudlin speech about how none of the money his friend has made or can expect to spend for his own enjoyment in retirement, nor the gifts he has received in honor of it nor the celebratory dinner are of the slightest importance. “None of these superficialities mean a god damn thing,” he bellows. Then, continuing tipsily and tautologically, he pronounces:

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, to building a fine house, 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.

Yeah, yeah. Ray's speech reminds us of Harry Bailey's calling his big brother George, played by Jimmy Stewart, “the richest man in town” in It's a Wonderful Life or Mr Waterbury's definition of “success” in Christmas in July — “if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye” — and it is similarly difficult to dismiss, I think, as merely sentimental humbug. Yet it does manage to strike several false notes in its context. Neither the “fine family” nor the respect of the community nor the “wonderful, lasting friendships” are what they seem to be and, although the Woodmen of the World may be a fine company, it has no further use for Warren Schmidt now that he has been turned out to pasture. His self-assessment as a failure in the final moments of the film — “there's just no getting around it,” he says, anymore than there is the death that he foresees for himself — has much more the ring of truth to it. So far, at least, as the Pursuit of Happiness is concerned, Warren Schmidt is one of those who would seem to have been left behind in the chase.

Another point of contact with George Bailey is that he dreams of great achievements, “I thought that I might be special, that somehow destiny had tapped me to be a great man. Not like Henry Ford or Walt Disney or somebody like that but somebody, you know, semi-important.” When he finally pronounces himself a failure it is in the context of his contrasting his life with that of the pioneers, whose museum he visits at Ft. Kearney, Nebraska, on the way back from Denver and the debacle of Jeannie's wedding. Here, however, there's no heart-warming scene under the Christmas tree to show us that he was wrong and that he was really a big success. All there is is the letter from Sister Nadine Gautier in Tanzania and the drawing from the child Ndugu that he has sponsored through ChildReach — a real charity, by the way — for a paltry $22 a month.

But, of course, the point is that that's not nothing, any more than Schmidt's remaining true to his stuffy, bourgeois sense of good manners and good taste at Jeannie's wedding or his self-examination on the roof of the Winnebago is nothing. Ndugu becomes the essential non-present presence in the film, the recurring reminder that Schmidt's America and its successes and failures, its joys and sorrows exist on a different plane altogether from much of the rest of the world, by whose standards success and failure must have very different meanings. Paradoxically, Ndugu reminds us of the American Dream, with which both Warren Schmidt and ourselves have such an ambivalent relationship, by being so impossibly far removed from it. Ndugu is also what keeps this movie from being like Babbitt or Death of a Salesman or any of the other less interesting works with which it has been — I think wrongly — compared, because he reminds us and eventually reminds Schmidt too of just how lucky we are.

I started this series by pointing out that, at least in its origins, happiness was all about luck, one old word for which was “hap.” In terms of luck, then, Schmidt is only unhappy by comparison with the “semi-important” man he once hoped to be, or perhaps those pioneers who crossed the prairies and built a nation. By comparison with Ndugu and most of his fellow Tanzanians, who remain very much off-screen, he is very happy indeed. And I don't think it is too fanciful to think of the motto he encounters at the Ft. Kearney museum about how “only the strong survived” and “they were the pioneers” — to think of that kind of strength, I mean, as analogous to his own in being able to take what life dishes out to him without crumbling under its burdens. It's certainly a more sober and sobering view of happiness than any we have considered so far, and some might even call it un-American, since it seems to refer us back to an older, European standard of honor or stoicism, rather than American-style dynamism and optimism that we saw in our last film and that we will see again in our next. But maybe the two things — both the courage to stand up to failure and the energy to push through to success — are not so far apart as we sometimes like to think they are. Anyway, I think you'll enjoy the film.

Trackbacks

  1. … [Trackback]…

    [...] Informations on that Topic: eppc.org/publications/about-schmidt-2/ [...]…

  2. … [Trackback]…

    [...] Find More Informations here: eppc.org/publications/about-schmidt-2/ [...]…

  3. … [Trackback]…

    [...] There you will find 62905 more Infos: eppc.org/publications/about-schmidt-2/ [...]…

  4. gehyzngk says:

    gehyzngk…

    Agree with your words. Can you can keep update your post. I want back. thx!…

  5. I like your blog…

    What is the difference between a blog and a website?…

  6. Trackback says:

    Good info…

    What is the best free software to automatically backup wordpress database and files?…

  7. Trackback says:

    I like your blog…

    I want to start a blog to write about everything that happens at school and with friends… anonymously… any sugestions?….

  8. I like your blog…

    How do you create a blog or a blog webpage?…

  9. Cs3FCaCKkV says:

    The Absent Game…

    Amongst me and my husband we’ve owned additional MP3 players over time than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (basic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few decades I’ve settled down to one line of players….

  10. bz13oF8UK8 says:

    The Silent Shard…

    This will likely most likely be quite practical for many of one’s employment I decide to will not only with my website but…

  11. XZS7sUKylP says:

    The Birch of the Shadow…

    I feel there could become a handful of duplicates, but an exceedingly helpful listing! I’ve tweeted this. Lots of thanks for sharing!…

  12. arnaque says:

    … [Trackback]…

    [...] There you will find 77604 more Infos: eppc.org/publications/about-schmidt-2/ [...]…

  13. Google says:

    Google…

    Below you’ll obtain the link to some web pages that we believe you should visit….

  14. paintless dent repair training…

    [...]Sites of interest we have a link to[...]…

  15. waxing studio city…

    [...]just beneath, are several totally not associated internet sites to ours, nonetheless, they are surely worth going over[...]…

  16. paintless dent repair training…

    [...]usually posts some really intriguing stuff like this. If you’re new to this site[...]…

  17. kamisorishears.com…

    [...]Here is an excellent Blog You may Discover Fascinating that we Encourage You[...]…

  18. pixelitas.com…

    [...]although internet websites we backlink to beneath are considerably not related to ours, we really feel they may be essentially worth a go by way of, so possess a look[...]…

  19. adult says:

    adult…

    [...]always a huge fan of linking to bloggers that I adore but do not get a whole lot of link really like from[...]…

  20. rape videos says:

    rape videos…

    [...]below you’ll come across the link to some web pages that we feel you need to visit[...]…

  21. paintless dent repair training…

    [...]The information and facts talked about in the write-up are some of the best accessible [...]…

  22. paintless dent removal training…

    [...]that will be the finish of this post. Here you’ll come across some web sites that we think you will enjoy, just click the hyperlinks over[...]…

  23. brave frontier cheats…

    [...]The facts talked about within the post are several of the top available [...]…

  24. promo says:

    promo…

    [...]that would be the end of this write-up. Here you will locate some websites that we feel you’ll appreciate, just click the hyperlinks over[...]…

  25. football says:

    football…

    [...]that will be the finish of this article. Right here you’ll discover some web pages that we think you’ll enjoy, just click the links over[...]…

  26. paintless dent repair training california…

    [...]here are some hyperlinks to websites that we link to since we believe they are really worth visiting[...]…

  27. basketball says:

    basketball…

    [...]the time to read or take a look at the content material or web sites we have linked to beneath the[...]…

  28. ordination says:

    ordination…

    [...]one of our visitors a short while ago proposed the following website[...]…

  29. Trackback says:

    Thank you…

    I have Firefox as my main web browser already, but I want my windows live messenger to open all windows on Firefox and not IE7. For example, the email icon on the top left hand corner of wlm. Every time I click on it, it opens up on IE7 which i don’t …

  30. http://www.Redwoodbridges.com...

    [...]usually posts some extremely exciting stuff like this. If you are new to this site[...]…

  31. Trackback says:

    Like it…

    How do you start a website for a clothing company?…

  32. find facebook password…

    [...]usually posts some quite intriguing stuff like this. If you are new to this site[...]…

  33. cadouri online…

    [...]The facts mentioned inside the report are several of the most effective accessible [...]…

  34. Trackback says:

    Thank you…

    In other words, how do i search for blogs that fit what I want to read about? Does anyone know how to BROWSE through blogs by subject or whatever on blogger?….

  35. buy email lists…

    [...]Every after inside a although we opt for blogs that we study. Listed beneath would be the most current internet sites that we select [...]…

  36. Trackback says:

    Good info…

    How do I copy my WordPress blog onto my computer so I can locally edit and try out plugins before publishing?…

  37. Trackback says:

    Maybe……

    What the best way to start up a dynamic website on a limited budget?…

  38. pdr-training.com…

    [...]one of our guests not too long ago suggested the following website[...]…

  39. Dedicated Servers…

    [...]The details talked about in the article are some of the most beneficial accessible [...]…

  40. Community says:

    Community…

    [...]Sites of interest we’ve a link to[...]…

  41. paintless dent repair…

    [...]Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a handful of unrelated information, nonetheless seriously worth taking a search, whoa did 1 learn about Mid East has got much more problerms at the same time [...]…

  42. Thorn of Girl…

    Very good info is often discovered on this internet web site….

  43. home remodeling…

    [...]check beneath, are some absolutely unrelated internet websites to ours, having said that, they are most trustworthy sources that we use[...]…

  44. Gifts for Men…

    [...]check below, are some completely unrelated web-sites to ours, on the other hand, they may be most trustworthy sources that we use[...]…

  45. Trackback says:

    I like your blog…

    I have a website that has been up and running for some time now, and for numerous reasons I want to replace it with a WordPress site… So, how do I start building the WordPress site – in a seperate folder from the “public_html” folder? Then when you…

  46. נוף says:

    … [Trackback]…

    [...] Read More here: eppc.org/publications/about-schmidt-2/ [...]…

  47. Trackback says:

    Great…

    What are some really good poetry blogs or websites to post journal entries?…

  48. Trackback says:

    Maybe……

    Can you type long blog posts on the PS3 web browser?…

  49. pdr-training.net/‎…

    [...]Every when inside a when we pick out blogs that we read. Listed beneath are the most current web pages that we select [...]…

  50. Trackback says:

    Like it…

    I recently started a blog, and I was just wondering how people have promoted their blogs online to get more followers so you aren’t just typing to nothing out in the internet?. Oh, and for my blog, I don’t really want my friends to be my followers, u…

  51. book of ra kostenlos spielen…

    [...]we prefer to honor quite a few other net web sites on the net, even when they aren’t linked to us, by linking to them. Underneath are some webpages worth checking out[...]…

  52. Atlanta Hypnosis…

    [...]usually posts some really exciting stuff like this. If you are new to this site[...]…

  53. Sonnencreme – Luxus Sonnencreme…

    [...]one of our guests not too long ago encouraged the following website[...]…

  54. malware on your blog, you will not…

    get readers when you get a big flash on your screen warning: malware. let your readers comment on your posts, if you don’t want anonymous comments, moderate them before allowing to publish, or set your settings to subscribers only, or members….

  55. Trackback says:

    Funny…

    I was just wondering what computer software you would need to make business cards or labels from a home computer. Is is easy or even worth the time or money…..

  56. content.proficiencymost successful bloggers are at least proficient…

    in the language they blog in. it’s incredibly difficult to read a poorly written blog. they might not be the best writer in the world, but they have a good enough handle on things that they get their point across clearly….

  57. in the butt and this plugin does…

    it for you and still gives you flexibility to customize it if you wish. and it’s secure so it makes me feel all fuzzy and warm. now you have a “contact us” form, how professional! google xml sitemaps (by arne brachhold)…

  58. Cheap Viagra says:

    Cheap Viagra…

    [...]Wonderful story, reckoned we could combine a few unrelated data, nonetheless really worth taking a search, whoa did 1 master about Mid East has got extra problerms also [...]…

  59. vast amounts of effort for little monetary…

    return, that’s not why people enter the field. to give you the edge there’s certain things that will keep you at the top of the pack these are:1: quality workquality counts, make no mistake you will stand or fall in the…

  60. Franquicia says:

    Franquicia…

    [...]The details mentioned in the report are a few of the top out there [...]…

  61. paintless dent repair training…

    [...]Every once inside a though we pick out blogs that we study. Listed below are the most up-to-date web pages that we select [...]…

  62. run through spell check on a computer….

    also, it is wise to ask someone to read it over and comment on it. the more people who read the resume, the more likely it is that misspelled words and awkward phrases will be noticed and corrected.an effective resume may…

  63. selling products or selling advertising and using…

    adsense.when deciding on blogger or wordpress, the first thing you must decide is what you’re using your blog for. for me this is the deciding factor when deciding which platform to use.blogger or wordpress: the comparisonfirst of all, i’m referring …

  64. might hire a va to confirm websites…

    are active, or to organize data, but forget hiring writers. i’d much rather pay more to an american.why don’t i hire foreign writers any more?good writing comes from more than an understanding of the english language. it comes from understanding seo,…

  65. paintless dent repair training…

    [...]usually posts some really exciting stuff like this. If you’re new to this site[...]…

  66. paintless dent removal training…

    [...]although web sites we backlink to below are considerably not associated to ours, we feel they may be really worth a go through, so possess a look[...]…

  67. qua tang says:

    qua tang…

    [...]that could be the finish of this report. Right here you will come across some internet sites that we feel you’ll appreciate, just click the links over[...]…

  68. popular and affordable diet plan for new…

    moms. the program has been re-designed in recent years and, in addition to a points system for foods you eat, there is also a quick start program that helps you to lose weight quickly. the support group for this program is…

  69. to your website and sales follow.keyword density…

    in the article usually does the trick of getting you noticed by the search engines. keywords are those terms which the people enter when searching for a product or services and keyword density is the number of times those vital words…

  70. to access my blog and translate it…

    into their own language.as far as statistics go, i don’t need to use an ad tracker because blogger does that too. it tracks all the hits, lets me know where they are from, where the hit originated from geographically and even…

  71. Funny…

    If somebody like Julia Roberts or Natalie Portman had a personal blog where they posted pictures of their vacations or something, would you still take them seriously as actors? Do you think celebrities with personal blogs are less credible and taken le…

  72. of advertising, you can show the ads…

    for some particular products. you can use the products from online stores or auctions. as a result, the ads for products will start showing on your blog. these ads will be relevant to the content of your blog.before starting the product-based…

  73. busy, you will still have content to…

    post.make sure your blog is as aesthetically pleasing as your website. it should be easy to read with basic fonts and attractive background images. include photos in your posts and make sure you follow at least basic rules of keyword optimization….

  74. and by this you will think completely…

    different. #5 blogging mistake- using big words i can guarantee it that we have all, at some point made this mistake while blogging. the use of vocabularies is common to many bloggers. you can add vocabularies so that your post may…

  75. view here says:

    webmasters on this count. most will say…

    that you can leave up to two links, but i personally prefer to have just one link in comments. i myself mark as spam any comment with more than one link, so i follow it in practice as well.tip iv: use…

  76. the daleys says:

    to them. they get free content and…

    you get exposure. it’s win-win and so far every blog owner i’ve contacted has accepted. but you have to give them your best! that’s really important.finding good blogswhat’s the best way to find good blogs for guest posting? of course, the…

  77. cool site says:

    ought to pass around business tones.iii) avoid…

    infusing personal information into the blog body.iv) make sure that volumes of writings by other bloggers and writers are read thoroughly to accustom one with popular writing styles and to develop presentation skills. inculcate information that is rele…

  78. being unique and useful.6. keep your writing…

    skills up to date by setting a time limit for writing your articles. yes, challenge yourself. this is very important for your success as a writer. always challenge yourself to write faster. if you are currently writing an article every hour,…

  79. your writing, but have no fear this…

    will come in due time. as you grow in your writing you’ll discover that there are so many different writing styles out there for you to choose from or even create that in time your repertoire will be enormous.here are a…