Schmidt: Something's Gotta Give!
Age at the Movies with Jack Nicholson
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
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