Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life Through Letters

About Schmidt
(2002, Alexander Payne) generally received very good to excellent reviews for its offbeat look at a newly retired actuary who makes a trip from his home in Omaha, Nebraska to see his daughter get married in Denver. The title character, portrayed by Jack Nicholson in one of his most atypical performances, doesn’t much care for his new son-in-law, but he does the proper thing and shows up for the ceremonies (though he pleads with his daughter not to marry her fiancĂ© just a few days before the wedding).

There were some reviewers who thought that the screenplay co-authored by Payne and Jim Taylor took some cheap shots at some characters and felt the film was a bit cruel. I don’t agree with those critics, but I do see their point.

What I’d like to discusss is the film’s message of life as it is really lived versus life as it is lived out in documents, whether in business memos or on computer screens. Schmidt was an actuary, hardly an exciting profession, and life for him revolved around statistics, cold numbers. We find out that he wanted to open his own business and had dreams of being famous and rich, but these plans never materialized; thus he worked for the same company for years. As we learn in the opening scene, when we see him wait until the clock on the wall of his drab office turns 5:00 on the dot until he leaves (presumably on his final day at work), this was not an enthralling job.

Soon after his retirement party (a wonderful scene set in a typically hokey Wild West-themed banquet room), he sees an commercial on television for a program where the public can send $22 a month to help out underpriviliged children in Africa. Intrigued and at the same time, wanting to put something new in his boring life, he decides to send money.

He receives acknowledgement of his charity and is told in a letter that any sort of personal communication along with the monetary gift would be appreciated. Schmidt decides then and there that he will write letters to the young boy named Ndugu that he is sponsoring. But instead of simple letters to a six-year old boy in Africa, he is determined to let the boy in on the inner workings of his life.

What I love about this angle is the fact that Schmidt pours his heart into these letters. It’s clear after seeing a few scenes with his wife that their marriage had become stale. He even writes at one point, “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” We can assume that he didn’t have many meaningful conversations with his wife during recent years, yet he relishes the chance to write all of his complaints about his wife to Ndugu. (These complaints ranged from everything about her wasting their money on her hobbies to how she would take her keys out of her purse well before she got to the car – how this annoyed him!)

It’s clear that written words mean so much to Schmidt now, just as the cold, hard statistics of his former job were the most important thing in his life. When he complains about how his wife smells, you know that he was not exactly a warm, compassionate human being. When he gets into his list of complaints about his wife, who could he tell? No one in his small circle of friends in Omaha, that’s for certain. But when it comes to letters to a six-year old in Africa, he can share his most inner thoughts.

This isn’t exactly mature on his part, but he obviously has been keeping this inside of him for a long time and now has the opportunity to let go with the truth. It’s safe to assume that when he’s tried to be truthful with the loved ones in his life, he failed miserably, so he has to do it through letters and not through actions. When he asks his daughter not to marry her fiancĂ©, as he believes he doesn’t measure up (he’s a water bed salesman), his daughter wonders why he cares about her now, especially as he took such little interest in her life as she grew up. It’s clear she only asks him to the wedding as it’s the proper thing to do – he has to give her away at the ceremony – but she’d probably feel fine if she didn’t have to deal with him. He feels the same way; it’s clear his attention for years was with his work – the cold figures on a compter screen or in reports – that he dealt with on a regular basis. Having to deal with the problems of his daughter was something he couldn’t handle.

The final scene in which he looks at a simple stick-figure illustration of an adult and a child holding hands under a bright blue sky on a sunny day is a brilliant way of closing this film and bringing home the message of dealing with your emotions through actions and not words. Schmidt cries as he glances at this drawing created by Ndugu as a gift to him. (What is especially touching is this happens after he writes Ndugu that he – Schmidt – has been a failure, that he has been weak).

The beauty and simplicity of this portrayal – how two people living thousands of miles away can share a friendship – is overwhelming to him. Fittingly, the message of optimism and hope come to him in a document. Perhaps at last, Schmidt can deal with people in his life through concern and brotherly love.

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