While it’s too early to say who the next Woody Allen will be when he’s still making movies as fantastic as Midnight in Paris or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, if there’s one American film-maker who has the potential to be the next great dramedy writer-director, then it is the powerhouse Alexander Payne. His 2004 film Sideways remains one of the truly great dark comedies of the aughts if not of all time, and it was easily the best film of that year. I loved Million Dollar Baby, but Sideways was for more original and sincere and the fact that Paul Giamatti didn’t receive an Oscar nomination (he should have won) is a crime. Election was Payne’s breakthrough film and though he hadn’t made a film since Sideways until last year with The Descendents, it is another film of his to be nominated for Best Picture as well as another Best Director nod.  2002’s About Schmidt is another essential film in the Alexander Payne library, and while it may lack the vitality and wit of Sideways, it is a wrenchingly true character study of a man in despair.

Not long after being forced to retire from his dull and unfulfilling career as an insurance actuary, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) suffers the loss of his wife who had long stopped appreciating or caring for. After a short visit from his daughter Jeanie (Hope Davis) and her slacker fiancee Randal (Dermot Murloney), Warren realizes that he has no one in his life and no one to care for him, and that in his 67 years on this office, he hasn’t accomplished anything worth while. So Warren packs up his belongings in to his massive RV and goes on a journey across the mid-West writing letters to a young African child he’s adopted through the TV and trying to recapture the memories and events of his youth that have long since disappeared into the hazy recesses of memory. As Warren hoofs it across the country, he reminisces on a wife and daughter he didn’t spend enough time with (and his desire to convince his daughter not to marry her fiancee) and comes across a crazy assortment of characters as he bides his time waiting to visit his daughter and her fiancee’s family in Dever for Jeanie’s wedding.

This film lands very hard on the drama side of the dramedy equation but it still has enough uncomfortable and awkward humor to recognizably be an Alexander Payne picture. Still, this film is far more about a deep and complex look at one man who’s grappling with the realities of old age and the point in our lives where maybe it’s become too late to make a difference. It’s not a very happy movie. In fact, it’s even more depressing than Sideways, but when the script (adapted from a book by Louis Begley) is full of this much truth and insight into loss and grief and old age, you can forgive it for offering you almost nothing in the way of hope or light. Much like Happiness (though far, far easier for me to recommend to the average movie-goer), this film doesn’t offer you happy endings or cheap answers. Instead, you get life, real unvarnished life. Warren is a deeply unhappy man (even before the death of his wife) and over the course of this movie, we see why he’s unhappy, how he alienates those around him, and how even realizing his flaws hasn’t made things much better. It’s heavy material but over the course of the film’s two hours, it never once fails to impress.

I’m a huge Jack Nicholson fan, and when I say this was the finest performance of his career, I truly mean it. Rather than the manic, magnetic wild man that is Jack’s niche, Warren is this reserved, depressed and low-key man wandering aimlessly through life. No one is drawn to Warren. Rather, he scares everyone away. Jack Nicholson is playing a character so far outside his comfort zone that I am truly shocked he was offered the part in the first place. Yet the gamble assuredly paid off because Jack showed that there’s more to him than “Here’s Johnny!” or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest craziness. It was a truly transformative role. Alexander Payne’s writing and direction were fantastic as usual, but Jack Nicholson’s five star performance will be what I remember when details of the plot begin to slip away. To take such a sad and pathetic creature and turn him into something worthy of being the centerpiece of a finely scripted movie is as high a testament to Jack Nicholson’s acting as has ever been made. Kathy Bates was a scene stealer as well as Randall’s mother with a feisty wit and hilarious commentary with Warren and her ex-husband/Randall’s father. My only complaint is that I truly wish we hadn’t had to see her naked because that will scar me emotionally for weeks to come.

For fans of Sideways (or any other Alexander Payne film or even Noah Baumbauch perhaps), this is an easy recommendation. Just don’t expect it to actually be a comedy because there are funny moments, but they don’t happen very often. Also, if you need warmth and uplifting messages in  your movies, you should turn away. Particularly, I’m looking at people that enjoyed the overly schmaltzy and cheesy Bucket List because About Schmidt is like the anti-Bucket List. So, this movie won’t be for you if you enjoy kitsch like that. For everyone who likes movies with a little authenticity that aren’t afraid to make you unendingly sad, then About Schmidt is the character study you’ve been looking for and another bit of proof that Alexander Payne is among the elite American filmmakers working today.

Final Score: A-