Grade: A

After a fallow period when he seemed largely to be coasting along on past laurels, Jack Nicholson has returned to top firm in recent years. His harrowing performance in Sean Penn’s “The Pledge” (2001) was a career high point that never received the attention it deserved (the film wasn’t properly recognized, either), and now, in Alexander Payne’s cheerily quirky, very loose and wonderfully loopy adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel, he gives a remarkable exhibition of thespian control and subtlety. “About Schmidt” showcases what’s easily one of the year’s best performances, and it’s thoroughly delightful besides.

The picture is basically a character study done in the gentle, laid-back style–an oddball combination of grittiness and whimsy–that seems all Payne’s own. The central figure is Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), an actuary at a big Omaha insurance company, whom we meet on the last day of his employment. After a retirement party where he’s clumsily saluted by his old friend Ray (Len Cariou), the unassuming but quietly eccentric fellow returns home with wife Helen (June Squibb). Soon he’s growing increasingly disenchanted and searching for ways to get some time away from the house–visiting his old office, stopping off at a fast-food joint, and–most importantly–becoming, in response to one of those ubiquitous TV ads pleading for assistance, the sponsor of an African child to whom he begins penning long, rambling, hilariously revealing and totally inappropriate letters about his plight which provide narration that carries the story along. When Helen suddenly dies, Warren takes the tragedy in stride, especially since it means the temporary return of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), who brings along Randall (Dermot Mulroney), the good-natured but goofy waterbed salesman she’s scheduled shortly to marry. But after Jeannie leaves again, Warren learns that Helen had once had a brief fling with Ray, and the discovery sends him into an emotional tailspin. Eventually he climbs into the RV in which he and Helen had intended to travel the country and speeds off to California on a mission to convince Jeannie to dump Randall, whom he thinks utterly beneath his daughter. After some amusing detours along the way, he winds up at the home of Randall’s mother Roberta (Kathy Bates), a boisterous throwback to the sixties, and the fellow’s other hapless relatives. Warren tries to persuade Jeannie to call the wedding off, but in the end he has to come to terms with her decision and his own altered circumstances. The poignant undercurrents that have been working all along break out briefly at the end, but even here the picture retains a tone of gentlemanly reserve, eschewing the crude overstatement so characteristic of studio movies.

Though he’s onscreen almost constantly throughout “About Schmidt” and so has ample opportunity to do so, Nicholson never forces things, and neither does Payne. The script has plenty of softly amusing twists and turns, but director and star collaborate to insure that they’re all done with great delicacy and restraint. Nicholson could have gone completely overboard, for example, in a sequence when Roberta joins him au naturel in a jacuzzi, or in another when Schmidt misinterprets the attitude of a woman whose husband invites him for dinner while he’s on the road; but instead of raising his famous eyebrows or flashing that sardonic grin, he stays resolutely in character, drawing a consistently convincing portrait of a man who, in his own homespun way, is controlled, fastidious and deeply serious. And in Warren’s big speech at Jeannie’s wedding reception, he plays things flawlessly, suggesting the man’s impulse to let loose but, like Schmidt himself, pulling back beautifully. In a part that virtually invites the sort of eyeball-rolling and snappish delivery he’s known for, Nicholson studiously checks all his usual flamboyant mannerisms, while remaining someone you can’t take your eyes off. It’s a great turn, a masterpiece of understatement.

Bates, on the other hand, comes on like gangbusters and never lets up; it’s clear she’s having a grand time playing a woman completely devoid of inhibitions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Squibb cuts the very image of the plain, unremarkable housewife. Mulroney brings a touch of real sweetness to Randall, who might have been nothing but a grinning caricature, and Howard Hesseman’s blandness is perfect for his blissfully obtuse father. Davis, on the other hand, can’t do much with the underwritten Jeannie, and Cariou’s phony bonhomie is too unvaried. But the pitch-perfect production design, unostentatious cinematography by James Glennon and supportive score by Rolfe Kent are all pluses.

“About Schmidt” will probably be lauded most for Nicholson’s impeccable work, but it should also be seen as a triumph for Payne. After only a few films, the writer-director has demonstrated that he has a unique voice (just as Wes Anderson does), a style that’s wonderfully laid-back and effortlessly amusing, but at the same time insightful and genuine. What’s marked all his films is the human truthfulness beneath the humor, and a sense of place that seems absolutely authentic despite whatever absurdities might happen. Despite their satiric edge, the portrait Payne’s pictures paint of middle America is basically an understanding and even affectionate one. “Schmidt” shares those strengths with “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” and together they form a Nebraska trilogy that’s one of the jewels of recent American film.