About Schmidt: Something's Gotta Give!

Third Age at the Movies with Jack Nicholson

By William A. Sadler, Ph.d.  

              The two recent movies starring Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt and Something's Gotta Give, provide an unexpected, provocative commentary about the Third Age. The first film paints a bleak portrait of a man entering retirement. Waiting in his office until his day is officially over at 5 PM, Warren Schmidt, a 66-year-old VP in the Actuary Department of Insurance Company in Omaha, Nebraska, retires. At a retirement dinner given in his honor, a colleague expresses a conventional view of retirement: I know something about retirement. All these speeches, gifts, social security, and pension funds don’t mean a goddamned thing. What means something is having given your best to a company, built a good family, and then looking back and saying: I did my job. I can enjoy retirement. Really? The movie challenges that view. If life’s a voyage, then retirement basically means that the voyage is over. You’re off the ship. Just look back! Warren slips away to the bar for a stiff drink.

            As the reality of not-working sinks in, Warren doesn’t know what to do with his “free” time. He works at crossword puzzles, watches TV, goes grocery shopping with his wife, Helen, and “for fun” has breakfast with her in the 35 foot RV they’ve bought at her urging. One day he goes back to the office to see if he can contribute. He is politely shown the elevator, only to discover that 40 years of research compiling minute actuarial details for the company has been tossed out in the trash. Everything he’s worked for discarded! Retirement begins to resemble a prison sentence.

Watching TV at home, he is engaged by an ad to help a needy child in Africa. Warren agrees to sponsor a 6-year-old orphan in a Tanzanian village. He sends a monthly check for $22 along with a long letters to Ndugu, providing details about his himself, his marriage, and his views on life to this child who cannot read or write.   

            His wife suddenly dies of a stroke. We learn from one letter to Ndugu that he didn’t really like his wife, but he’s lost without her. His daughter, whom he has ignored for years, returns with her fiancée for the funeral. Warren tries in vain to persuade her to stay to take care of him. Bereft of wife and having no really close friends, Warren begins a search for meaningful connection. He offers to help his daughter with wedding preparations, only to be rejected. He travels to his home town, only to find his childhood home has been replaced by a tire store. He can make no connection with a visit to his alma mater. Parking his RV in a camping area he is welcomed to dine with a Wisconsin couple. While the host leaves to pick up more beer, the wife shares her perception of him that he is deeply sad, fearful, and lonely. Comforted by her empathy, Warren confesses that she understands him better after one hour than his wife did in 40 years. He lunges to embrace her only to be ordered out of their home. Driving across the bleak flatlands of Nebraska Warren is passed by a cattle truck; one of the cows makes eye contact. They are both prisoners on the road. Eventually he arrives in Denver to attend his daughter’s wedding. He tries to connect once again, but fails. His way is to control, and she refuses to be manipulated. Staying with the divorced mother of the groom, Warren is finally invited to connect. But when she (Kathy Bates) touches his knee in the hot tub, he flees.

            Returning home all alone Warren reflects on his life. Warren has inherited the disconnected life he’s made for himself. Success has turned sour. Now he asks: What kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? I’m a weak person. I’m a failure. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of.  Given all we’ve learned, we might agree with him. So ends a failed life, a dismal Third Age in Retirement. Or does it?

The movie doesn’t so much conclude this story but opens to the possibility of a new one. Warren receives a letter from an African nun who writes that Ndugu thinks of him daily and has drawn a picture - a stick figured child holding the hand of his benefactor. Warren sobs, and the movie ends. Has he learned anything? Have we? I think so. He has made a difference! Ndugu’s graphic message resembles that in E. M. Forster’s novel, HOWARD’S END: only connect. To a man who has pursued success in conventional terms, but who fails in life, Forster urges him to connect his heart with his head, and his individual life with those he loves. What really matters in the Third Age and retirement is reaching out in meaningful connection to those who need us. Warren’s questions point him and us to think about our life’s meaning and our legacy. We have a chance in the Third Age to make a difference to the world and in ourselves.

The second movie builds on that message. Jack Nicholson’s character in Something's Gotta Give breaks from his past to discover possibilities he never dreamed of. Harry, a 63-year-old never- married, affluent entrepreneur playboy meets Erica (Diane Keaton), a very successful playwright and mother of his current girl friend, who brings him to mom’s elegant beach house in the Hamptons for the weekend. The two Third Agers are set in their ways and repel each other; but the set cracks. Harry has a heart attack and is confined to the beach house for recovery. This provides an opportunity for discovery – of self, of another person, and of genuine romance. The girl friend/daughter goes home. The two unlikely “old” mates fall for each other. But upon going back to his home in New York, Harry falls back into his old ways. Erica is devastated, but exploits her emotions to produce her best play and then enters a romantic relationship with Harry’s young doctor. Harry withdraws for several months into honest self-reflection. He emerges a different man. Along the way he finally learns to accept his vulnerabilities from aging and opens himself to genuine emotions. He risks changing the way he lives as well as committing himself to loving Erica. He pursues her. They connect, and Harry confesses: I’m 63 and in love for the first time. They marry and build a new life together.

The happy ending of this romantic comedy is not just a heart warmer. To me it affirms values and lessons we can all learn to make our Third Age more fulfilling. In these two movies Jack Nicholson has revealed both the darkness of stereotypes about aging and retirement as well as unexpected light that can emerge as we tap our creative potential and connect more deeply with ourselves and other people. The underlying message of these movies confirms the discoveries Jim Krefft and I have made and expressed in our new book: CHANGING COURSE: HOW TO REDEFINE RETIREMENT AND SUSTAIN GROWTH FOR A FULFILLING THIRD AGE. If you haven’t, see the movies; and wait for the book to appear next year.

  Copyright 2004 William A. Sadler and The Center for Third Age Leadership, LLC