Warren Schmidt knows a bargain when he sees one. In Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, the eponymous character (played by Jack Nicholson) is watching television when he sees one of those ubiquitous commercials for adopt-a-child programs. The voiceover explains that through Child Reach viewers can make a difference in a child’s life for only $22 a month. “Pity and guilt are not enough,” the commercial explains, encouraging viewers to put their money where their sympathy is.
Schmidt’s interest is piqued. For $22 a month, he thinks he just might be able to buy a way out of his depression. An aging retiree with nothing to do and no one to do it with, Schmidt is a grouch in the vein of a previous Nicholson character, Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets. But here there is no bubbly Helen Hunt to reveal the grumpy old man’s inner beauty. Here, in fact, the grouch is not searching for mere happiness, but something far greater and more elusive: significance.
As the film opens, we understand that the bottom had fallen out of Schmidt’s life long before, but he has just now realized it. At his retirement dinner, Schmidt’s closest friend, Ray, tells everyone that Schmidt’s retirement pension and social security don’t mean a goddamn thing. Ray explains what really matters: Schmidt loved his wife and his family, and he spent his life helping build Omaha, Nebraska’s premiere insurance agency.
If Schmidt bought into Ray’s Midwestern Christian values, he might feel glad at Ray’s assessment. But Schmidt suspects that his life has been pointless. When he returns to visit the insurance agency he finds he has been replaced without a problem, and he sees his files, his life’s work, scattered by a dumpster. Schmidt is distant from his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), and he disapproves of her fiancé, Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a waterbed salesman with a mullet. Maybe Schmidt loved his wife Helen (June Squibb) once upon a time, but now he no longer recognizes his bride. “Who is this old lady sleeping next to me?” he wonders.
When Helen suddenly dies, Schmidt turns to his local church for answers. Instead, he finds sympathy — cards with gold crosses on the front and friends who give him stock Christian responses: “You are in our prayers”; “God can handle it if we’re angry at him.” The gestures are well intended, but limp.
Schmidt encounters a different world and a different kind of answer when he arrives in Denver for his daughter’s wedding. There he meets Roberta (Kathy Bates), the hippie mother of Schmidt’s son-in-law to be. Roberta’s house is the Eastern counterpart to Omaha’s Midwestern Christianity. Filled with Hindu pictures and lava lamps, her home is a peaceful sanctuary and a pleasuredome. Roberta diagnoses Schmidt’s misery and offers a cure: a little lovemaking, some hot tubbing, and a jolt of Percodan, and Schmidt’s problems will melt away.
Neither Ray nor Roberta are much help, so Schmidt returns to his last line of hope: a $22/month charity. When Schmidt initially calls Child Reach, a heaviness hangs over the film because it seems that it might be the punch line of Payne’s sardonic joke. The children’s foundations are sometimes cynical scams, about as helpful as a televangelist.
But through Child Reach, Schmidt meets Ndugu, a nine-year-old boy from Tanzania. Schmidt’s comical letters to Ndugu provide a more useful direction for Schmidt’s search: a place far, far outside himself.
At Jeannie’s wedding reception, we see the effect that Ndugu has had on Schmidt. Everyone knows that Schmidt has adamantly disagreed with the union of Jeannie and Randall, and when he raises his glass to perform the toast, the reception room falls into an awkward silence. Perhaps they fear what we fear, that the Jack Nicholson from Batman or The Shining will appear and ruin everything. But Schmidt finds the good in Randall, Randall’s family, and Jeannie’s marriage.
Yet for all his searching, Schmidt is left where he started. His wife is gone, his daughter has married a loser, and his career, now gone, meant nothing. Nonetheless, in his final letter to Nydugu we see that Schmidt has made a leap of faith into a different perspective. As Schmidt narrates the letter, he stands in a pioneer museum admiring wax statues of settlers and explorers and he is inspired by their bravery. He realizes not only how petty he has been, but how small he is in the grand scheme.
Indeed, Schmidt has such epiphanies in the simplest of places throughout the film: truck stops, tire stores, and Winnebago campgrounds. And at the center of every revelation is Schmidt’s belief that he has finally touched the life of another. His $22 investment buys him an odd kind of peace: the kind that believes our slightest goodness can be made manifest in the life of another.