Fear and self-loathing in Omaha

"About Schmidt" comes from writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, who emerged as premier satirists with "Election" and "Citizen Ruth."

Their new picture heads in similar directions, again probing bittersweet aspects of the American scene. But they're aiming at a broader audience this time, and Jack Nicholson helps them carry the day.

Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a retired Nebraska businessman planning a trip to his daughter's wedding. But his wife abruptly dies, forcing him to rethink his future and reevaluate his past. He does this by revisiting old haunts and then trekking to the wedding, where his discontents grow more intense than ever.

The movie is at its best during Warren's solitary journey by Winnebago. Also impressive is the film's voiceover narration, gleaned from letters he writes to an African orphan he's "adopted" by sending money to a charity group. Payne and Taylor haven't lost their ear for the facile aphorisms of middle-class life.

Nicholson gives a bravely unglamorous performance, making us feel how desperately Warren has worked to convince himself he's successful and fulfilled, even though the facts he's finally facing point in the opposite direction.

Despite these assets, "About Schmidt" doesn't follow up its most telling implications. Warren's personal woes give him new chances to rip through his illusions and reveal his inner self to family and friends. But he passes up every opportunity, as does the movie itself - especially in the final scene, which is closer to sentimental melodrama than the tough-minded satire Payne and Taylor have crafted in the past.

It's possible to interpret the film differently, seeing its conclusion as a rueful suggestion that America has become so psychologically drab that the only emotional comfort a needy soul like Warren can hope for is an uncomprehending pen pal on the other side of the world.

The filmmakers spin things optimistically, though, asking us to think Warren's dreams of a beneficent world have finally come true. Nicholson makes the movie so poignant that it's hard to resist, but I wonder if Payne and Taylor are rejecting the skeptical attitudes of their other films to become more popular, hoping a softer emotional tone will help this picture win the Oscars that have eluded their more tough-minded works.

In any case, one thing is certain: There's no actor on the planet like Nicholson, and here he's at the peak of his powers.

Rated R; contains nudity and vulgar language.

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