About Schmidt is based on a novel by Louis Begley, but the easiest way to get a sense of Election director Alexander Payne’s newest film is to imagine Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections converted into cinematic form and told from the point of view of a single character, in this case the crusty Midwestern patriarch. The old man in Payne’s version, Warren Schmidt, is played by Jack Nicholson—which pretty much ensures that the director won’t need an Oprah-related controversy to bring commercial success his way. Indeed, though this is one of Nicholson’s quietest performances, it is also one of his most deeply felt. Rarely has an actor embraced the mundane—from channel-surfing to driving in the slow lane—with such obvious relish. The first scene shows Schmidt at work on the final afternoon of his career as an actuary for Woodmen of the World Insurance in Omaha, Neb. Retirement for Warren, it turns out, promises a whole lot of nothing—unless you count occasional vacations in his new 35-foot Adventurer motor home and putting on a coat and tie to head out and mail a letter. When his wife, Helen (June Squibb), dies suddenly of a cerebral blood clot while Warren is out buying a milkshake, he is left further adrift. Only two things give Warren’s new life meaning: his eagerness to derail the upcoming Denver wedding of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to a mullet-wearing waterbed salesman named Randall (Dermot Mulroney), and the letters he writes to Ndugu Umbo, a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy he’s supporting through a charity that advertises on late-night television. At the heart of About Schmidt is a road trip—to Denver, for the wedding—whose images are supplemented with voice-overs from Warren’s notes to Tanzania. Though the letters initially seem a too-obvious prop for Payne and screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, they wind up giving the movie a comforting rhythm, and we begin to look forward to hearing the words “Dear Ndugu….” At its best, About Schmidt, like Franzen’s novel, is a depressingly dead-on critique of decaying family relationships and crass American culture, from the rehearsal dinner at Tony Roma’s to the plans for a honeymoon in Orlando, Fla., to the fact that Warren’s boyhood home is now occupied by a tire shop. (“I used to live here,” Warren tells the clerk, who blankly responds, “Right here, in the store?”) And the performances are terrific—not only Nicholson’s take on Warren, with its bursts of stiff, geriatric rage, but also Davis’ turn as Jeannie, who tolerates her loser fiance but can’t seem to do the same for her increasingly confused father, as well as Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Randall’s free-spirited mother. Still, the film is all over the map: Payne and Taylor want to create a devastating social critique and a tear-jerker at the same time, and the job winds up slipping away from them from time to time. Compared with Payne’s Election, a movie remarkable for the absolute, unwavering maintenance of its satirical tone, About Schmidt is a richer and more ambitious effort—but ultimately it’s a less consistent and less satisfying one, too. —Christopher Hawthorne