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ABOUT SCHMIDT

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Quiescent and nearly depopulated at dusk, downtown Omaha in the opening frames of About Schmidt suggests Ground Zero for an incompletely effective neutron bomb. Traffic lights blink at lonely cars barely audible in the distance; a gray sky grows imperceptibly grayer. Director Alexander Payne cuts to a close shot of a tall office building, viewed from a monumentalizing low angle.

Then there's another such shot, followed quickly by several more of the building, whose huge, plain-lettered corporate sign reads "Woodmen." Leave it to Payne, the witty writer and director of Election, to start his melancholy new comedy with a little joke about architecture: The building looks the same from every angle.

Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, is the film's hero and the first person we see. Schmidt is watching a clock tick down the final few seconds of his career as a Woodmen actuary. Paunchy, seamed and phlegmatic, he's the picture of mediocrity, a man bound for the oblivion of retirement -- though sentenced to first endure the briefer oblivion of his retirement party. Yet in this film, based on the novel by Louis Begley, Payne sets out to tell why Schmidt, appearances notwithstanding, doesn't look the same from every angle.

Shortly after retiring, Schmidt returns home from an errand to find his wife -- about whom he's lately grown ambivalent -- dead. The rest of his family is his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), who is about to marry a man Schmidt considers subpar. Jeannie lives half a country away, in Denver. So About Schmidt becomes a road movie: In a brand-new RV big as a city bus, Schmidt sets out to stop the wedding, along the way visiting his alma mater, various historical sites and what's left of his boyhood home.

All this is a way for Payne, who wrote the script with Jim Taylor, to explore some things about loss, sadness and rootlessless in America, and to be funny about it. After his wife dies, Schmidt becomes "foster father" to a boy named Ndugu, to whom he sends $22 checks and a succession of letters, each detailing his life and new adventures to uncomprehending 6-year-old Tanzanian ears; Nicholson's voiceovers of the letters counterpoint the action with deadpan humor. Driven by a long-repressed anger he only dimly comprehends, Schmidt prowls the country in an avenging Winnebago whose gracefulness mirrors his own wobbly gait. If one early scene in a bar briefly references a previous Nicholson role as a man adrift (The Shining), much of the movie seems an ironic riff on the mythic freedoms eulogized in Easy Rider, with Nicholson trading a Harley for a Winnie. You can practically hear the soundtrack wailing "Born to Be Mild."

But just as in Election Payne found both the satiric humor and the humanity in Reese Witherspoon's overachieving high school student, so About Schmidt parlays even its broadest humor -- Schmidt stoned on Percodan; Schmidt in a hot tub with Jeannie's earthy mother-in-law-to-be (Kathy Bates) -- into a deeper understanding of Schmidt's existential dilemmas. His newfound freedom conflicts with his fear of life. Jeannie is his pride and joy, but he can't talk to her without arguing. And he is able to unburden his soul only in handwritten letters to a small illiterate boy half a world away (the charity's pamphlet reads "Communicating with your child").

Omaha native Payne, at 41, has made an American version of the sort of films aging European filmmakers make about old men (often themselves aging European filmmakers) confronting their lives. It is relaxed and often dark-humored and almost completely non-formulaic, but beautifully constructed and no less tender for any of that.

In its quiet way, it is even heartbreaking. And Payne doesn't confine his sympathy to Schmidt, as whom Nicholson is pitch-perfect, a middle-class hobo clown in pajamas and rumpled overcoat. Davis plays Jeannie as a woman determined to take control of her life. And both Payne and actor Dermot Mulroney handle her fiancé, a waterbed salesman named Randall, beautifully. He is far from the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and he sports an egregious mullet. But Payne makes clear he is a good guy whom Schmidt vilifies only because he reminds him too much of himself.

In a minor-key way, Schmidt is a tragic hero. Years of going along have dulled him, but as an actuary he knows how much life he likely has left. At age 66, for his race, occupation and other characteristics, it's about nine years. That might not be enough time to change the world, or to make peace with his daughter. But it might be just enough to figure out how he has gotten to where he is, with Omaha empty and the sun going down. * * * 1/2

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