It’s Hard Getting Old — About Schmidt and Everybody’s Fine

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I recently watched two very similarly-themed movies that feature older, recently widowed men and their tenuous attachments to their families, About Schmidt and Everybody’s Fine. Both feature great actors getting to play something very rare in Hollywood movies – their age.

In About Schmidt, from 2002, Jack Nicholson is wonderful as Warren Schmidt, a man who has kept life at a distance. As the movie opens he is retiring from a job as an insurance actuary. The opening shots of Omaha’s Woodmen of the World building, where Schmidt worked, are fantastic and set the tone for this “life viewed from a distance” film. Schmidt himself has lived most of his life at a distance, void of emotion. He may or may not have liked his job, but he has certainly spent most of his time involved with it rather than his wife and daughter. A few days into his retirement he is already bored and resenting all of his wife’s routines and tics. But almost as soon as he starts to catalogue her faults, she dies, suddenly. His daughter Jeannie, played by Hope Davis, comes for the funeral, but she clearly doesn’t care much for him and can’t wait to get back to her life in Denver and planning her upcoming wedding.

Schmidt isn’t sure what it’s all about anymore.

Schmidt, “I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”

Schmidt decides to sponsor a child from Tanzania, Ndugu, and the film includes voiceover narration of his informative and inappropriate letters to the young boy. As he tells Ndugu, Schmidt strongly disapproves of Jeannie’s fiance, waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney). But she won’t listen to him and has no desire to come home to Omaha and take care of him. Scenes of Schmidt rambling around his house and life after his wife has died couldn’t help but remind me of my dad after my parents’ divorce. Whether he was happy in his marriage or not, Schmidt clearly feels rudderless without his wife around.

Kathy Bates is hysterical as Randall’s randy mom, Roberta.

Roberta, “You already know how famously they get along as friends, but did you know that their sex life is positively white hot? The main reason both of my marriages failed was sexual. I’m an extremely sexual person, I can’t help it, it just how I’m wired, you know, even when I was a little girl. I had my first orgasm when I was six in ballet class. Anyway, the point is that I have been always very easily aroused and very orgasmic, Jeannie and I have a lot in common that way. Clifford and Larry, they were nice guys, but they just could not keep up with me. Anyway, I don’t want to betray Jeannie’s confidence, but let me just assure you that whatever problems those two kids may run into along the way, they will always be able to count on what happens between the sheets to keep them together. More soup?”

Schmidt, “Eh… no, I think I’m fine now.”

And Nicholson is fine as Schmidt. The camera spends a lot of time on his face, and we get to suffer along with him as he travels the open road, trying to connect with his daughter, with life.

Robert De Niro plays a similar character, Frank Goode, in Everybody’s Fine, which came out in 2009. It’s a remake of an Italian film, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene , which I haven’t seen. Frank has four children, and none of them want to visit him after their mother dies. One by one, he tries to pay each a visit, some interactions more successful than others. Frank realizes that his kids were able to tell his wife anything, and that now it is easier for them to lie to him. Three of the grown kids, Robert (Sam Rockwell), Rosie (Drew Barrymore), and Amy (Kate Beckinsale) are equal parts suspicious of his motives and grief-stricken. Each has some substantial issues or secrets to work out with their father, but they aren’t as disconnected from Frank as Schmidt’s daughter Jeannie is in About Schmidt .

Rosie, “We could just talk to mom.”
Frank, “Oh, but you couldn’t just talk to me?”
Rosie, “Well she was a good listener, you were a good talker.”
Frank, “Well so that’s good, we made a good team.”

Everybody’s Fine
doesn’t strike as deep a chord as About Schmidt does, but it is still a nice little film. There is some added drama, as De Niro’s Frank has a heart condition and spends most of the movie without some of his necessary medicine, but viewers only have to look to the title to be reassured of the outcome.

As much as aging is depicted as difficult – it’s always hard to be on the other side of youth and promise – both men in these films are doing the best they can and are trying to live their lives with dignity. Both films are ultimately uplifting, and definitely worth a look.

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