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Hollywood movies tend to
aim at a target demographic of younger movie-goers, aged 15-35. However, for
the first time in human history, the population of older adults, aged 50 and over,
are beginning to rival the younger generations in numbers and spending power.
Hence, films with senior citizen stars that focus on issues relevant to the
Baby Boomer generation are becoming more popular. In all likelihood, this trend
will continue as the aging population drives the demand for movies with
characters that an older population can identify with. Films such as About
Schmidt (2001), Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood (2002), and the
recent Something's Gotta Give (2003) all have over-50 actors in lead
roles. However, only About Schmidt deals primarily with the issues
central to the last stage of human development: retirement, the loss of a
lifelong spouse and the transition from parenthood to grandparenthood.
Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a pioneer of
psychoanalytic thought and founding father of the "life course"
approach to the study of human development, is most famous for his model of
identity crises, which occur at different stages of life. In Erikson's final
stage of identity development, "Integrity versus Despair," people
nearing the end of their life will look back on their life story and make
retrospective interpretations. If one finds meaning in one's life, a sense of
existential integrity is achieved. If no meaning is found, if the most
resounding feeling is a sense of regret for the things one didn't do, then the
result is despair. In director Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, Warren
Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) doubts that his life was meaningful, after he retires
from a 40-year career as an insurance actuary, and his wife (June Squibb)
passes away. The realization that his wife had an affair, compounded with the
belief that his daughter, Jeannine (Hope Davis), is going to marry a complete
loser (Dermot Mulroney), prompts Schmidt to set out on a journey to find some
kind of meaning in his life. He tries to rescue his daughter from what he
perceives to be a bad marriage by attempting to stop the wedding, but he
eventually realizes that his daughter is not his little girl anymore. She is a
grown woman, her own person, who must make her own decisions -- and if
necessary -- suffer her own disappointments and mistakes.
Towards the end of his
journey, Schmidt is mired in a pit of despair: "What in the world is
better because of me? I am a failure… Relatively soon, I will die… and it will
be as though I never even existed." But at his lowest moment, a
seemingly trivial message gives Schmidt a boost of integrity. Schmidt receives
a painting in the mail from Ndugu, the impoverished African foster child that
he has been supporting through a Christian relief fund. Schmidt's realization
that somewhere in a distant corner of the world, he did something extremely
good for someone he never even knew, is enough to make him appreciate the
beauty and value of his own life. Schmidt's resolution of his identity crisis,
his personal victory of integrity over despair, is a statement of life
affirmation that is inspiring for anyone interested in the crisis of existence,
though it may resonate most strongly with audiences who, like Schmidt, are
experiencing the trials and tribulations of the final stage of life. The film
is beautifully directed by Alexander Payne, who also adapted the screenplay
from the novel by Louis Hegley. (Payne also directed and adapted the screenplay
for Election (1999), a hilariously dark comedy with Mathew Broderick and
Reese Witherspoon). Jack Nicholson is at the top of his game as an actor. His
performance garnered him a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination
for best actor in a lead role. The film also features a boisterous performance
by Kathy Bates as Jeannine's eccentric future mother-in-law. Bates' inspired
portrayal earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.
In the end, Alexander Payne's film is a winner because it entertains and also
inspires. It tells a wonderful story with alacrity, wit and psychological
© 2004 William Indick
Indick, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling
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