Alexander Payne has never been one to find comedy in the most obvious places – a knocked-up junkie’s decision over whether to have an abortion in Citizen Ruth (1996), a power-obsessed teenage career climber in Election (1999) and now in About Schmidt, he focuses on a retired actuary dealing with the dual blow of his wife’s death and the realisation that he has wasted his life.

Hardly sounds like the stuff to have them rolling in the aisles, or even chuckling in their chairs, but it is Payne’s mastery of throwing eccentric characters out of their element, only to have them encounter equally odd people in strange surroundings, that manages to find humour in the absurdity of human interaction.

Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is essentially a socially stunted, comb-over sporting number-cruncher who, after thirty years working nine to five as an actuary, realises that all he has to look forward to in retirement is a merry cruise around America in a mobile home with a wife he can no longer stand (Easy Rider, the Twilight Years, anyone?). His replacement in the insurance company doesn’t require any advice in the handover, showing that as long as the work got done, Schmidt’s position could have been filled by anyone. Any entrepreneurial ambitions he may have had in past were quickly hampered by his wife who valued the car, child, suburban home with picket fence etc that his secure job brought too much to have him potentially gamble it away on a business venture.

Not that you can see any frustration in Schmidt initially, as he whiles away the days watching TV and taking drives around town – enough, it seems, to satisfy his limited imagination. It’s only when he decides to sponsor a Tanzanian orphan called Ndugu that the repressed bile comes forth through the letters he is encouraged to write. "Everyday I wake up and ask ‘who is this old lady sleeping next to me?,’" he says of his wife in one of his many tirades. And then she dies. As if their respective positions of businessman and housewife have suddenly expired and she has no other role to assume now that they have been discarded by the corporate world.

This event forces Schmidt to redefine his existence. Who can he turn to now? The discovery of old love letters from his best friend to his wife soon shatters any future in their relationship. So it seems the only other person to whose life he has to meddle in is his daughter Jeannie’s (Hope Davies). She lives a couple of states away from him and is about to marry bemulleted waterbed salesman, Randall (Dermot Mulroney) – totally unsuitable for his precious Jeannie, so he must put a stop to their wedding. Well, what was the mobile home going to be used for otherwise?

This isn’t so much a story about a late-life crisis, but rather a revelation that the materialism and typical family unit that Schmidt carved out for himself in his dutiful and obedient existence was merely scraping the surface. But rather than provoking a desire to find himself (there seems to be nothing to find), it merely unlocks a torrent of bitterness.

Nicholson has swapped his trademark slicked-back hair for a sleepy comb-over, but his unwieldy eyebrows still make their way skyward. Such an expressive face looks all the more odd on such a lifeless character and makes for guffaw-inducing moments of exasperation and surprise during Schmidt’s adventures.

You have to wonder when Schmidt will find salvation and make his peace with the world. Any time the film nears a moment when it seems likely (the touching speech at his daughter’s wedding, the ‘revelatory dream’) it is clear that his actions are motivated by a sense of self-preservation rather than any genuine emotion.

Payne pokes fun at both the conservative values held by Schmidt and the ultra-liberal household of Randall’s family, in a painfully funny critique of two polar opposites within American society. But it’s all too easy to sit back and laugh at the dull Schmidt (he may have had the most boring job in the world – judge for yourself, click on the link opposite), but the film’s power lies in its ability to provoke empathy for the downtrodden retiree. After thirty years in your job will you be able to look back with pride or resentment? It’s a daunting question to which the film offers no answers, leaving you with an uncomfortable sense of dread.