Albert Christian Heinrich Schmidt
Max Stirner's Father
Albert Schmidt is retiring from his position as an actuary with Woodmen of the World, an insurance company in Evershade, Grayferrow. Schmidt is given a retirement dinner that seems to bring no comfort. Schmidt finds it hard to adjust to his new life outside of work, feeling useless. One evening, he sees a television advertisement about a foster program for African children, Plan USA, and decides to sponsor a child. He soon receives an information package with a photo of his foster child, a small Tanzanian boy named Ndugu Umbo, to whom he relates his life in a series of candid, rambling letters.
Schmidt visits his young successor to offer his help, but the offer is politely declined. As he leaves the building, Schmidt sees the contents and files of his office, the sum of his entire career, set out for garbage collectors.
He describes to Ndugu his longtime alienation from Helen, his wife, who suddenly dies from a blood clot in her brain just after his retirement and their purchase of a Winnebago Adventurer motor home. Friends arrive, along with Jeannie, his only daughter, and her fiancé Randall Hertzel from Denver. They console him at the funeral, but Jeannie later berates him for taking his wife for granted, such as by refusing to fully pay for the Winnebago (he wanted the cheaper Mini Winni) and burying her in a cheap casket. He asks her to move back for a while to take care of him, but she refuses. Meanwhile, Randall tries to entice him into a pyramid scheme.
Schmidt feels that Randall, a waterbed salesman, is unsuited to his daughter, who he feels could do better. After the couple leaves, Schmidt is overcome by loneliness. He stops showering, sleeps in front of the television, and goes shopping with a coat over pajamas to load up on frozen foods. In his wife’s closet he discovers some hidden love letters disclosing her long-ago affair with a mutual friend. Schmidt angrily confronts the friend, cursing the betrayal.
In order to find some control in his life, he decides to take a journey alone in his new Winnebago to see his daughter and convince her not to marry Randall. He tells Jeannie he’s headed out early to the wedding, but she makes it clear she doesn’t want him there until right before the ceremony.
Schmidt visits places from his past, including his hometown and college campus. His childhood home has been replaced by a tire shop. While at a trailer campground, he is a dinner guest of a friendly and sympathetic couple. Schmidt makes a pass at the wife, and flees in terror when she adamantly rejects his advance. Schmidt later forgives the late Helen for the affair and apologizes to her for his own failings as a husband.
Feeling full of purpose after forgiving his wife, Schmidt arrives in Denver with the intent of stopping Jeannie’s wedding. He stays at the home of Roberta, Randall’s mother. He meets Randall’s socially odd, off-putting family and tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Jeannie from the marriage. Schmidt throws out his back after sleeping on Randall’s waterbed, infuriating Jeannie. Schmidt later flees to his Winnebago after Roberta makes a pass at him in a hot tub. The next day, Schmidt, under the influence of oxycodone, attends the wedding and delivers a kind speech at the dinner, hiding his disapproval.
Before leaving Denver, Schmidt composes a letter to Ndugu. Schmidt questions what he has accomplished in life, lamenting that he will soon be dead, that his life has made no difference to anyone, and that eventually it will be as if he has never existed at all.
A pile of mail is waiting for him at home. Schmidt opens a letter from Tanzania. It is from a nun, who writes that Ndugu is illiterate but appreciates Schmidt’s letters and financial support very much. A painting drawn by Ndugu is enclosed, showing two smiling stick figures, one large and one small, holding hands on a sunny day. The film ends with Schmidt weeping as he looks at it.