View Full Version : Retirement and a Vanilla Latte

03-31-2003, 11:00 PM
About Schmidt
A film by Alexander Payne

Before seeing “About Schmidt”, I made a brief stop at Starbucks. I needed a vanilla latte or I might not have made it through the film. I explained to the young lady behind the counter the need for this boost and she responded by asking what film I was about to see. I told her and it turned out that she had already seen it. Not only had she seen it but she really enjoyed it as well. In fact, the film had left something of a lasting impression on her. After having seen it, she got to thinking about her parents and the kinds of issues they’ll be facing as they approach their retirement. Oh, and she thought Jack Nicholson was great!

My father is only fifty-two years old but he retired last year after the plant he worked at for over twenty years closed down their production. Albeit an early age to stop working, it still has to be something of a drastic change of pace. Fortunately for him, he has always been heavily involved in outside projects so he has plenty to keep him busy. However, I still feel it necessary to ask myself, what was it like that moment he realized he never had to go back to work again? What was it like when he realized he was free? And then what?

This moment comes for Warren Schmidt as he wakes up just before his alarm would’ve ordinarily gone off at 7:00 A.M. The film opens just the day before, at the last remaining minutes of Warren’s working life. He is 66 years old and about to retire. His bag is packed; his desk is cleared. Slowly but surely the seconds slip past him and his moment of triumph has arrived. He looks neither happy nor elated that this moment has come. Instead he looks complacent, distant and lost. Warren is going through the motions. He meets up with his wife of many years for his official retirement dinner and when the evening is done, they almost systematically head for their home and their bed. Their home looks lived in and their faces look tired as they head off to bed. Warren’s life is consumed with routine. He’s had the same wife, job, home and purpose for so many years that he has no idea what to do with himself now that his schedule has been rearranged.

To top this off, Warren doesn’t have any real connection to his wife and child. He wants to know his daughter better but basically this has to be on terms that suit his life and not hers. He cowers around his wife, believing that he truly has no idea who she is or why they’re still together rather than turning the spotlight on him to learn who he is. Consequently, when his wife dies shortly after his retirement, Warren begins to exist in a state of paralysis. Not only does he not know who he is but he also doesn’t know who he is without her. His wife filled the voids and gaps of Warren’s life in her own special way, a way that just a few days before, he found completely irritating. Then, as if that isn’t enough already, Warren’s only daughter is getting married shortly and Warren doesn’t consider the groom-to-be remotely worthy of his darling daughter. Typical fatherly reaction only Warren doesn’t really know his daughter either. Seems he’s closed himself off from everyone and everything around him, including his own inner voice. It’s time for Schmidt to learn about Schmidt.

Jack Nicholson. Attaching that name to a film means you’re in store for bravado, snarls and trademark toothy grins. Nicholson is so popular and easily recognized that it makes it very difficult for him to escape his on-screen persona from film to film. Director Alexander Payne manages successfully to strip away each heavy layer of Nicholson’s ego. In fact, when Payne is done with him, all that is left is a glassy-eyed, quiet, 66-year-old man who shuffles slowly from room to room looking for something to occupy his aging hands. Nicholson’s celebrity glow is extinguished so that we actually see his age, weight and skin for what they really are. Nicholson could be your older neighbour sitting on his front porch that you wave to as you walk past or miss entirely. Of course Nicholson deserves some credit as well. He plays Warren with understatement and bewilderment, searching for himself in everyone else to avoid looking in.

Enter Kathy Bates as Roberta Hertzel, mother of the groom. Roberta is the perfect character to offset Warren’s aimlessness. She is a confidant woman who casually rattles off the details of her first orgasm in ballet class at age eight. She has no shame and why should she? She is aware of whom she is, where her life has taken her and she is in control of her decisions and actions. Roberta’s comfort with herself comes directly from Bates’ ability to command attention the moment she walks on screen. She carries herself with a self-assured gusto that fills everything she does, whether that’s devouring a chicken dinner with her bare hands or disrobing into the nude for a late night hot tub dip with Jack.

Payne has crafted a simple, moderately slow-paced film about discovering who you are at any age. I’m not going to lie; he made me cry more than once. I’m a long way off from retirement but the concept of being chewed up and spit out by a hollow capitalist system is a potential reality that many people face and embark on without realizing what the end result may be. Like Payne’s previous work (Election, Citizen Ruth), he tones down the usual Hollywood gloss to reveal a world that more resembles that of the general movie going public, making the situation all the more believable and relatable. The clothing and art direction choices are always plain and natural. Either the crew just pulled up to shoot at a place that already looked perfectly normal or the designers went through painstaking lengths to achieve a look that’s meant to seem like no movie magic work went into it at all.

Reaching out to the people around you is not always easy. There can be so much fear of rejection and being misunderstood. This can be especially difficult when you don’t know exactly what it is you have to offer. I say you’ve got to start somewhere and Warren starts by taking a trip down memory lane to remind himself that he’s alive and that all his memories were at one point a reality. And even though, by the close of the film, Warren only manages to share sincerely in letters he writes to a third-world country child he’s sponsoring for so many cents a day, he’s come to understand to some small extent for a man of his stubborn nature that as long as he’s still breathing, he still has a place, be it on the open road or that front porch swing.

To the lady at the Starbucks at the Chinook Mall in Calgary, thanks for the chat and the latte.

Grade: B+