At a press conference following the premiere of About Schmidt at Cannes last May, Jack Nicholson said that he rooted the character of Warren Schmidt, a Nebraska insurance actuary, in the man's comb-over -- a serious, stuck hairdo for a serious, stuck man who endures our laughter and earns our empathy. There's much more to Nicholson's Oscar-worthy performance than hairspray, of course, but the wily star is onto something: The power of this great movie -- part comedy, part tragedy, part satire, mostly masterpiece -- is in the details. You don't have to know Omaha to know that Omaha-bred filmmaker Alexander Payne has located what is right and true, personal and universal about quiet American desperation and raucous American individuality. Even more than in his previous two beauts, ''Election'' and ''Citizen Ruth,'' Payne is in perfect vibration with the Om in Omaha.
Not that 66-year-old Warren Schmidt would know Om from an omelette. He has paid out a lifetime of workdays calculating precisely when a man is likely to die but has never let himself feel the painful astonishment of what it's like to live. Yet here he is, recently retired, with time on his hands. It may be too late for big changes in life -- like his comb-over, some things are set. But Schmidt's odyssey, he decides, will be to drive his motor home to see his only child, Jeannie (Hope Davis), in Denver, where he will try to prevent her from marrying her boobish fiancé, Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a charmless waterbed salesman with an era-defying tonsorial style all his own.
Much is being made of the lack of vanity with which Nicholson inhabits the part; the actor's containment of his famous Jackness is striking in its discipline, and the understatement pays off in a climax of lasting power. But the generosity and concentration the actor gives to the movie is by no means a solo act. Expertly navigating between sharp social satire and bracing compassion -- those places where we can locate our own vulnerabilities in the eccentricities of others -- Payne and his cowriter Jim Taylor have created a neighborhood of beautifully flawed characters. (The writers shaped the script from an earlier unproduced work by Payne combined with ideas from the Manhattan-based novel ''About Schmidt'' by Louis Begley.)
And every role is a corker, including that of Ndugu Umbo, a never-seen 6-year-old Tanzanian orphan Schmidt sponsors for $22 a month, and to whom he writes long letters smoothing grief, rage, and bewilderment at the puniness of his life into chirpy prose of stalwart Midwestern alrighty-ness. Davis evokes the resentful competence of a disappointed daughter, making it easy to understand why she's attracted to the no-expectations messiness of Randall and his cheerfully boorish parents, Roberta and Larry. We understand why those parents (Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman) are divorced, as well as why they're still shouting at each other in intimate irritation.
And by the time the incomparable Bates jumps beside Nicholson into her hot tub, we realize that this brave and hilarious scene is destined to win awards for one of the best films of the year.