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Oncology Times:
doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000290863.10566.b5
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Turrisi Takes on the Movies

Turrisi, Andrew T. III, MD

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Professor and Chair Department of Radiation Oncology Medical University of South Carolina

‘About Schmidt’ Starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermott Mulroney, and Kathy Bates; Directed by Alexander Payne; Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, adapted from a novel by Louis Begley

This is a movie that you will either love or hate—we've had both reactions in my family. I hate it and cannot for the life of me see what all the praise is about. I thought that Jack Nicholson's performance as Warren Schmidt trod between the pathetic and the sardonic.

Despite his being nominated for Best Actor, the role is shallow. Jack's charm is usually mischief or delight, and this character is inert, devoid of most emotions.

Warren Schmidt cannot even be called a decent man. He made little to account for himself and his life, and seems a poor excuse for a husband and father, but we are supposed to believe he is redeemed by a solitary and almost miserly single good act.

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The movie opens to a dreary winter sky, with jerky focus on the sole towering structure in a bland and characterless city; your focus is drawn to the lone tall building crowned with the name “Woodmen.” You are in Omaha and about to spend two hours in the vanilla life of Warren Schmidt, a wooden man with no heart, no head, and no spine.

He is ending his career as “assistant vice president and actuary” of the Woodmen Insurance Company.

We see him count down the final minutes of his employed life as the electric clock ticks off the final seconds of a bland man's bland career. Ordinariness is no sin, but why make a movie about it?

His maudlin retirement party is at a local steak house where the picture of cattle seems more prominently displayed than the portraits of men. His wife, Helen (June Squibb), sits like a modern Aunt Bea from Andy Griffin, as a prop or to prop up our lugubrious hero. Rather than a Stepford wife, she seems a “stepped-on” wife, a perpetual doormat, but always devoted and at his side.

Schmidt's successor at the office mouths a perfunctory speech with stifled insincerity about how hard it will be to succeed him, and then Ray (Len Cariou), his already retired buddy, serves up an embarrassing speech that says all a man needs is family and friends. Warren soon shows us that he has few to no friends, and his family would prefer to avoid him, given a choice.

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Tongue in Cheek?

Some have said this is tongue in cheek and irony and tragi-comedy at its best, with the hapless Warren a cautionary tale perhaps of what we will become if we do not “get a life.”

Now home for good, he relates the quiet desperate agreements he's made to keep peace. It is clear that Helen has been the glue in this relationship. She prepares breakfast in their newly acquired oversized RV—“The Adventurer.” It is obvious that their life has had no adventure.

Warren leaves her tidying up with a Dust Buster, the droning motor hum consumes the still air as he departs on errands. He tarries getting ice cream, but the droning can still be heard as he re-enters the home. Helen is lying on the floor, unarrouseable, dead no doubt from a sudden and dense stroke.

The funeral exposes Warren's true nature—he is cheap, self-centered, slovenly, and despite having missed out on his own life, finds this an opportunity to control his daughter's (Hope Davis). She is appalled and embarrassed. She comes home for the funeral, bringing her intended, Randall Hertzel (Dermott Mulroney).

Jeannie is a sympathetic young woman who has always been close to her mom, but her relationship to Warren is distant and strained. Randall has “loser” tattooed on his forehead, but Jeannie finds him “easy on the eye,” to use his mother's (Kathy Bates) phrase. Randall, charitably, is nice, but does not understand that his mullet coif and Fu-Man-Chu facial hair make it hopeless for him to be taken seriously.

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His without-pause pitch for a get-rich-quick scheme that intends to deliver him from the evil of water bed sales to the ranks of a wealthy entrepreneur is clueless and insensitive. Later we see he has certificates of attendance “suitable for framing” framed and hanging in his pathetic adolescent room.

But Jeannie likes him, and their attraction and togetherness offers them more than their lives alone. Using the ever-ready parental weapon of guilt, Warren panders for Jeannie to stay and take care of him. Jeannie, wanting her life and her Randall, wants out of Omaha and away from Schmidt's clutches as soon as possible.

While cleaning out Helen's clothes closet, Schmidt finds a trove of letters from years ago and learns that she and his friend Ray had an adulterous affair. Seething and demanding revenge, he ambushes Ray outside the barbershop with angry accusations over events 30 to 40 years ago.

Watching TV one night, Schmidt catches one of these ads to send $22 a month to a starving African child, and in a fit of humanitarian fervor, he sends his donation and gets connected with a little Tanzanian boy, Ndugu.

Warren can pour out his self-serving views of events and unload his anger without worry and without offending old friends or memories as he writes what must be a bewildering monologue to a starving child.

Warren fires up “the Adventurer” to head for the road with no specific agenda. Is he driving to find his life? Has he gone to look for America? He calls Jeannie feverishly preparing for nuptials with Randall and says he is coming early.

Wisely, she rebuffs his plan and asks him to go home. Once out he visits his hometown, and finds that there is a tire store where his house was. He buys some Hummel figurines to recall his wife's hobby, but absentmindedly leaves them on the roof of the RV.

He pulls into a trailer park and gets invited to dinner. A Midwestern couple evokes parodies of Fargo, where the authenticity and story ran true, but here the sound is tinny, and the effect magnifies Warren's social boorishness.

Finally en route to Denver, he shows up at the future in-laws, the Roberta Hertzel home. Kathy Bates' Roberta is the counterpoint to Warren Schmidt. Roberta is multiply divorced, foul-mouthed, son-loving and earth motherly.

She is as comfortable in her skin as Warren is uncomfortable in his. The hot tub scene displays this as well as Ms. Bates' ample figure. Warren reacts like a virginal pre-teen being seduced by the girl no one wants to date.

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Loathed It

I loathed this movie the first time I saw it, and revisited it recently to see if I could change my mind. No way.

Some call it on the edge between tragedy and comedy. The feeling for me was similar to that at the recruitment dinner I held when an older couple who had had too much to drink shared too much of their problems in too-loud tones. The waiter cautioned them to be quieter, but as they huffily left she said that he was out of line. As always, the projection was really more about her behavior and how it embarrassed everyone else.

I felt more embarrassment for Warren, for Randall, for Jeannie, and for Roberta. The sympathetic characters either died or were left behind.

Many have seen “nuance” and “sensitivity” in Mr. Nicholson's performance, and I really am a Nicholson fan. However, I cannot imagine why he took this part, which had a narrow range, a pathetic and unsympathetic Willy Loman, and very little insight or redemptive quality.

I cannot find redemption in sending $22 monthly to air grievances to a child—pretty cheap psychotherapy, and without any insight or possibility of evolving for Warren.

In the end, the ethics of this movie suggest that selfishness and emptiness are common traits and that intrusion into children's lives and paltry donations to charitable causes without truly and selflessly giving and without grace or love can salvage a meaningless existence.

To me this glorifies an immoral life that only edifies by negative example.

Tragedy requires a conspiracy of forces beyond identification of mere mortals. What Warren really displays is a pathetic sad sack, who has learned nothing from life and offers very little in way of example.

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‘save the Children’

One must wonder about these “Save the Children” campaigns that actually promise to provide sustenance to kids for paltry sums. I'm reminded that as AIDS prepares to take a swathe through the population in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, that as little as $30 a month would provide anti-viral cocktails. This is well below average wholesale price for these drugs in the US, but the pharmaceutical companies can provide these at cost this cheaply (but not in the US market).

It is shocking that even that sum is considered too pricey to save lives by African governments. While a preventable medical genocide could be prevented as almost cheaply as Warren sustains Ndugu, the governments of southern Africa can't find sufficient revenue.

The UN has not been able to prevent the traditional genocides of Hutus by Tutsis in Rwanda. The Serbs had their way with Bosnian Muslims without any whimpers from the civilized world, the mass destruction of humanity from a viral weapon seems to be worth attention but I guess it doesn't touch American hearts or souls. Oncologists, ASCO, and the Congress are confronting their own price and valuation of practice costs disagreements, but the root of this debate is money and the justification of how payments are made on the one hand and the fervent desire to cut costs by CMS.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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