Dir: Alexander Payne. US. 2002. 125 mins. Screened in Competition

Underplaying the overt social satire of Citizen Ruth and Election, Alexander Payne's remorselessly interior dramedy is centred squarely on a single character, and narrower in focus and more pessimistic in tone than either of its predecessors. About Schmidt also abandons the femme slant of the earlier films: its main character is an alienated insurance actuary who is, as he realises himself (the statistics point to it), approaching the end of his life. Jack Nicholson gives a commanding, naked performance that's one of his least ingratiating roles of recent years, even counting his turn in The Pledge. The story's basic conception - a sad loner seeking redemption in the bosom of his family - may seem a shade conventional for the arthouse crowd but Payne takes it to unexpected places. With an end-of-the-year release in the US, following its premiere in Cannes, About Schmidt might well emerge there as a prestige item, but it is unlikely to become Payne's big breakout success.

With his stiff gait and dead reptilian eyes, Schmidt is as rigid and unfeeling as the name of the corporation he works for, Woodmen Insurance. Dedicated to his job in a rather mechanical fashion, he has plodded up through the ranks and the decades to the dizzy heights of assistant Vice-President. Now his retirement threatens his self-esteem and his very reason for living.

On an obscure impulse, this profoundly ungenerous man responds to a TV charity ad and sponsors a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan named Ndugu for 72 cents a day. An addition by Payne to Louis Begley's source novel, this is an effective narrative device. In a film where Schmidt is required to hold the screen alone for long stretches, his four confessional, comically inappropriate letters to the child give the viewer access to his inner thoughts and act for the character as impromptu therapy. They also point to issues beyond his self-centred obsessions.

Schmidt is remote from the women - or indeed anyone - around him. He resents and despises his wife of 42 years (June Squibb) and finds her physically repugnant. "Why is this old woman living in my house'" he wonders aloud to his small African correspondent. Yet when she suddenly dies, he's left entirely adrift, his bewilderment in no way mitigated when he discovers her affair with a neighbour years ago.

A third trauma looms to overturn his world: his daughter Jeannie's impending marriage to a dim-bulb waterbed salesman whom Schmidt regards as "not up to snuff." However it's clear that his relations with Jeannie (Hope Davis) are extremely strained. When he speaks of her in his first letter to Ndugu, Payne flashes up photos of her as a child and young girl: daddy's little poppet who in Schmidt's eyes has never grown up, although he persists in viewing her idealistically.

Three formal gatherings marking these milestone events form the main setpieces in the movie. In between them, Schmidt, resolved to combat his depression, sets out on a mini-odyssey across his, and Payne's, home state of Nebraska in the enormous Winnebago that his wife insisted they buy together before she died. Visiting childhood haunts, he buttonholes bemused locals and bombards them with his memories or visits some of Nebraska's tackier tourist attractions.

Nicholson, an actor who has never cared much for vanity, looks alarmingly haggard, but the actor's star wattage goes some way to compensating for his character's unattractiveness, physical and spiritual. Still, he does not dominate the movie at the expense of the supporting cast. In a small role as Schmidt's prospective son-in-law, Dermot Mulroney projects a dopey warmth and sweetness, the qualities Jeannie never found in her father. It's easy to understand what she sees in him. As Mulroney's mother, Kathy Bates creates a warm but abrasive eccentric who, in two ripe comic scenes, treats a discomfited Schmidt, for whom sex has clearly never figured large, to intimate confessions about her hysterectomy, breast-feeding technique and first orgasm at the age of six.

For a while the film seems briefly to be shaping up as a sentimental journey of self-discovery, a la Christmas Carol: we expect Schmidt to be transformed by his experiences. To its artistic credit - but doubtless its commercial detriment - this never happens. He remains intractable to the last, and the thinly veiled sarcasm of his speech at the wedding breakfast is not lost on his daughter. Only in the last scene, when the child he has sponsored reaches out to him with touching simplicity, does this mean-spirited and embittered man make a fleeting human connection, probably for the first time in his life.

Prod cos: Avery Pix, New Line
US dist:
New Line
Int'l sales:
New Line International
Exec prod:
Bill Badalato
Harry Gittes, Michael Besman
Payne, Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Louis Begley
James Glennon
Prod des:
Jane Stewart
Kevin Ten
Rolfe Kent
Main cast:
Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, June Squibb