New Line Cinema, R rating
At first brush, Warren Schmidt, the central character of this acclaimed film, would be easy to dismiss—his spiritual hunger appears negligible; his existence mundane—except for one thing: He is a whole lot like many of us.
Believably portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Schmidt is an everyman or everywoman figure. A recently retired insurance actuary of Woodmen of the World from Omaha, Nebraska, Schmidt speaks out of middle America to middle America. When his company dispatches him with ease upon his retirement, his longtime wife, Helen, suddenly dies, and his only daughter, Jeanne (played by Hope Davis), becomes engaged to a quirky, new-age water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney) who doesn't measure up to Schmidt's standards (he calls the fiancé a "loser"), you've got a character in full-blown, late middle-age turmoil; some would call it spiritual angst.
Though not an overtly religious man, Schmidt's emotional pain and the confusion of his changing social status give rise to a host of dilemmas that are broadly spiritual in nature. They are the kinds of questions that can keep you up late at night, and, depending upon your answers, throw you into further confusion or, just maybe, open a door to God.
Without a place to go to work every day, and easily forgotten by former colleagues, Schmidt confronts the most basic of human hungers: what is the purpose of human existence? When all is said and done, and the clock begins to wind down, what really matters? Only the most callous would scoff, "Who cares?" Life tends towards some end, most of us want to believe. When Schmidt bumps into this hard-edged question following the death of his spouse, he stumbles around the house for days in pajamas and bedroom slippers looking for somewhere to take hold. The script provides some comic relief to his quandary by showing a disheveled Schmidt scrounging for food in an amazingly disordered kitchen, but the emptiness of the refrigerator and pantry is a tragicomic signal of his inner state.
Schmidt attempts to pull himself together by embarking on a voyage in his Winnebago to visit and "help" his soon-to-be-married daughter with her wedding arrangements. We feel more than sadness for Schmidt when he calls Jeanne from a pay phone to apprise her of his plans, only to be told in no uncertain terms that she doesn't need or want him to visit before the wedding. We recognize Schmidt's thoroughly modern desperation for family connection in his appeal to Jeanne, "I want to make up for lost time; I want to help. You're all I got."
Rebuffed by the preoccupied daughter, Schmidt journeys to Kansas to the location of his childhood home and his college days. Everyone that he meets humors him, but their bemused indulgence of this aging retiree on a trip down memory lane only heightens the poignancy of his quest. One of the most painfully comic moments of the movie occurs when Schmidt stands inside a tire store that now occupies the lot of his childhood home and proclaims to the well-meaning salesman, "This used to be my room."Little wonder that the faithful talk of finding God as discovering a "new home."
In the end, Schmidt begins to find his way through the emotional and spiritual morass by looking beyond his contempt of the new-age quirks of his daughter's fiancé's family (Kathy Bates as outrageous, new age mother-in-law) to see the outlines of human love. The daughter does not marry "well" by Schmidt's standards, but these are decent, sincere human beings whom Schmidt might learn to love and respect with time.
Most significant, in the parting moments of the film, this ordinary guy, hungry for purpose and human relationship in the trailing years of life, opens a letter from Ndugu. He is a Tanzanian child that, early in the movie, Schmidt spontaneously decided to sponsor after seeing an appeal on a TV charity infomercial. The letter includes a photograph of the child, a note of thanks, and a hand-drawn picture from Ndugu. The picture, in childhood crayon, shows an adult and a child holding hands. When Schmidt sees the simple, innocent drawing, he cannot close his eyes tight enough against the tears of pain and relief that begin to flow. On his unbidden pilgrimage for deeper purpose, for meaningful, even redemptive human relationships, Schmidt has made a start.
The Christian viewer need not press this film about an "ordinary Joe" too far to find the religious questions that it serves up. Since it offers no heavy-handed religious answers to the dilemmas raised, the directions suggested are all the more compelling. Whatever else life created by God is, surely the gift and struggle of human relationship lies at the center. Schmidt's spiritual quest is at bottom a human quest—to know and be known, to love and be loved, truly, by others. That, and the need for most persons who have an inkling of compassion and an ounce of thoughtfulness to spend some of who they are and what they have in care of others. We do so either because we understand that's how God intends for humanity to be or because in the end, there is really nothing else.
To put it in Christian terms, to give ourselves away that others might live. Schmidt and Ndugu live thousands of miles apart; they only know one another as names and static photos on a page. But Schmidt, in one small act of spontaneous concern reaches out towards redemption. Ndugu, a younger child of God, reaches back on the other end.
The spiritual quandaries raised touch on core issues of our modern-day experience: What really matters in this life? How, after chasing respectability, work, and a decent day's pay can we make up for all the moments lost among family and friends? Can we drift so far from those we love and from the places of our birth that all attempts at recovery will yield further heartache? Or is there, when realization comes, a redemptive turn towards others that breaks through the frozen ice of ignored love and pretense to yield at least the promise if not the experience of reconciliation?
Finally, what is our responsibility to the Ndugus of our world—the millions of hungry, war-ravaged, and neglected children, women, and men of the world for whom even probing questions as these are cruel mockery of their need for food and shelter. Schmidt does not yet ask these questions within the sight of God. But the believer in God known through Jesus Christ cannot escape seeking answers. And like Schmidt it is the connections between ourselves and others that points the way to meaning.
Copyright @ 2004 Lee Ramsey.