Truby on Structure: About Schmidt
By John Truby
About Schmidt does something that is rare in movies, especially from Hollywood. It depicts a lone man. That is both a blessing and a curse.
There is a very good reason films don't usually depict a lone man. Film is drama. It is public. We need someone for the main character to talk to. Otherwise the audience doesn't know what the film is about.
The main device this film uses to overcome the lone man problem is the voice-over where Schmidt reads the letters he's written to his African foster child, Ndugu. This technique not only gives the audience a great deal of information, it provides the best comedy of the film.
Missing from the script are opposition, hidden information and thus reveals. The lack of opposition means that we go for long periods without much happening, and worse, we get no depth or variation in the main conflict of the movie. The main opponent in the movie is Schmidt's daughter, who is about to marry a man Schmidt doesn't like. But the daughter is rarely present. And the conflict has no issue. It's an emotional thing; she's either going to marry the guy or not.
The lack of hidden information and reveals means there is little plot. True, Schmidt finds out about his wife's infidelity. But this reveal has little effect because the wife is already dead and we've seen very little of what's between Schmidt and the friend who betrayed him.
In place of a developing opposition and reveals, the writers create a story line by sending the hero on a journey to his daughter's wedding. This gives the appearance of character development, but not the reality. Schmidt simply flips at the end of the film when he makes a speech praising his daughter's new husband and family. But he is clearly not truthful, merely trying to be polite.
This film seems to be getting praise because it is not a Hollywood mainstream picture, and Jack Nicholson is playing a schlub. That's not enough for me. I left the theater thinking the real drama of this man's life happened before this picture began.
Meet the Author: John Truby
John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.