The familiar piece of Americana that is the Midwest can make for brilliantly simple cinema. Just ask Alexander Payne. Director/writer Payne never forgot where he came from – Nebraska – as he studied film at U.C.L.A. and then started making feature films as humorous and insightful as “Citizen Ruth” and “Election” (we won’t mention “Jurassic Park III “since Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor simply wrote the reptilian roller coaster ride). Even with half a lifetime spent in California, Hollywood cannot change Payne, whose filmmaking spark still lies in the familial experiences and plain but powerful observations of a Midwestern maturation. Those instincts drive “About Schmidt,” Payne’s best film yet in a short but superlative career.

Its “Citizen Kane” inspired opening montage of the Woodmen of the World tower in downtown Omaha immediately reveals the film geek and gifted craftsman behind the doubly Oscar-nominated film. Inside the visual landmark, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) sits molded to his desk chair, his grief accentuated with a deer in the headlights stare as the clock strikes five, hurling retirement life upon the sexagenarian. Life traveled fast for Schmidt, and his almost ever-present voiceover to a Tanzanian foster child named Ndugu wonders with hilariousness and sadness where the possibilities and vigor of his younger self disappeared to. From Schmidt’s road trip down memory lane on the massive Adventurer RV to his daughter’s (Hope Davis) wedding to perennial honorable mention winner Randall (a terrifically understated Dermot Mulroney), Payne’s pacing never feels rushed, granting every actor and non-actor (Payne argues why use a fake when you have a real Dairy Queen employee at your command) time for their flaws and sensibilities to rise through the genuine words Payne and Taylor have written for them.

Disappointingly, while the films of 2002 were some of the best of the recent memory, there seems to be a continuing trend of lazy DVD donation. A lack of commentary tracks, making of featurettes and the regular DVD attractions is now commonplace on DVDs like “About Schmidt.” “Schmidt” offers nearly perfect picture and sound quality, and does offer nine deleted scenes with thorough, informative introductions by Payne on each segment and why they did not make the final cut, but the only other considerable extra is an assortment of artsy but unexciting montages in honor of the Woodmen of the World tower. The DVD does include a pamphlet from Childreach exclaiming “Meet the real Ndugu!” Now, that’s one special feature we’d like to see.

Movie – 4.5

Picture/Sound – 4.5

Features – 2

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