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film: You don't know Jack 

Slyly and without fanfare, "About Schmidt" puts forth the scariest of scenarios: that Jack Nicholson is the postmodern Everyman.

At 66, Schmidt's having something of a midlife crisis. Naturally, it doesn't dawn on him — nor would it matter if it did — that he's a good decade-and-a-half late on this emotional issue. From the opening shot — Nicholson in Schmidt's anonymous insurance-company office, staring at the clock as its second hand slowly ticks down to quitting time. But this day's end signals so much more: This is not just any day's end, this is Schmidt's last day on the job. His in-box is empty; his files neatly boxed and labeled. While others facing retirement might slack off, not our Schmidt. Whether there's work to be done or not, he'll stay at his desk until 5 p.m., because that's what he's always done.

Besides introducing us to Schmidt, that opening sequence also serves as subtle but straightforward warning that this movie belongs to Nicholson and Nicholson alone. He's in practically every scene, and Payne and Taylor (the clever satirists responsible for "Election" and "Citizen Ruth") have written him a jewel of a character to inhabit.

Schmidt, you see, has lived his life by the rules — he married, he had a child, he worked for the same company his entire career. But now, as "About Schmidt" unreels, he's beginning to wonder how it all happened and just what it all meant. His wife (June Squibb) annoys him; his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) is distant and tough; and at work, his replacement is a glad-handing young guy who never misses a chance to suck-up to his bosses.

As with the political satire "Election," "Schmidt" is set in Payne's hometown of Omaha, Neb. This, as a drastic change from the Hamptons setting in the Louis Begley novel on which the movie is based, may upset some fans of the book. But with Nicholson onboard as Schmidt, the setting becomes secondary. We sit transfixed by Nicholson's Schmidt, as he wanders around his fussily over-decorated home as if a visitor from another planet.

Decked out in his post-retirement uniform of sweater-vest and tie, he searches for something to fill his empty days. What he seizes upon is nothing short of brilliant: Only the wicked minds of Payne and Taylor could come up with the running gag of having Schmidt correspond his true feelings in letters to a 6-year-old foster child in Tanzania. Using language that's as inappropriate as it is jovial, Schmidt's letters are voice-over delights. "Take care," he writes to little Ndugu, "and best of luck in all your endeavors."

Like some Midwestern mime, Schmidt is a man boxed in by a life that somehow seemed to happen without his input. He's trapped by convention, trapped by language, trapped by his inability to connect with anyone but Ndugu (who really can't communicate in return); Schmidt's essence is captured by Nicholson to perfection.

Somehow, Nicholson seems smaller here and unusually tentative: His Schmidt is accustomed to not having to think about what to do, so when he's finally forced to strike out on his own, he does so with cautious wonderment. Through a plot twist I won't divulge, Schmidt finds himself alone behind the wheel of his retirement Winnebago, heading to Denver for the upcoming wedding of his daughter to a mullet-coiffed dolt (Dermot Mulroney) who sells waterbeds. There's something quietly poignant at his wary acceptance of freedom that only builds as he deals with all manner of challenges that would shock only someone who's never seen an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show." And there's no question that Schmidt would number among that small group.

As the story progresses, Schmidt moves closer and closer to Everyman status, and Nicholson, closer and closer to another Academy Award. From mistaken sexual cues to blatant come-ons, Nicholson is a study in reserve. Like a great Galapagos turtle, Nicholson's rheumy eyes move slowly yet miss nothing. And in a final shot that should easily earn Nicholson his 12th Oscar nomination, we see his face finally remembering how to cry and how to smile.

"About Schmidt" works marvelously as a tale of late-in-life man's reawakening. But as a cutting social satire, it's not on par with Payne and Taylor's previous movies. "Election," in particular (one of my favorite comedies of the '90s), perfectly balanced an obvious affection for its characters with razor-sharp commentary, making it easy for us to laugh at them and still like them. Here, the secondary characters are too broadly drawn, and in truth, a bit uninspired as satirical targets. (Although Kathy Bates' gutsy performance as an aging flower-child, free-luvin' Earth Mother is definitely memorable.)

But the true joy here is seeing a master actor reveling in his craft — as well as a character that is paradoxically more complex and yet simpler than most we encounter on the big screen. Consequently, "About Schmidt" is a worthy, artful ride-along that rivals Nicholson's earlier freewheeling trek in "Easy Rider." ***** S

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