Writer-director Alexander Payne and cowriter Jim Taylor completely rework Louis Begley's acclaimed novel into an odd, picaresque odyssey in which a retired 66-year-old insurance actuary takes to the road in a 35-foot Winnebago. It's not exactly a journey of self-discovery; Warren Schmidt (beautifully played by Jack Nicholson) is far too deluded to know he's even lost. After years of faithful service to Omaha's Woodmen of the World Insurance Company, Schmidt is calling it a day. At his retirement dinner, old friend Ray (Len Cariou) raises his glass and reminds everyone that the only thing that matters is the knowledge that you devoted your life to something meaningful. With nothing ahead but the dull prospect of touring the country in an enormous Winnebago with Helen (June Squibb), the wife of 42 years whom he can barely tolerate, Schmidt has to wonder what meaning his life holds. One afternoon, Schmidt happens upon an infomercial for Childreach, a children's relief organization, and with one impulsive phone call becomes the proud sponsor of a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy named Ndugu. The agency encourages sponsors to include a little personal information with their monthly payment, so with each $22 check he writes, Schmidt obliges with a long letter brimming with bitterness, petty selfishness, disappointment with himself and his daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), and disgust over her impending marriage to good-natured waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney), whom Schmidt feels just isn't up to snuff. Schmidt's neat world is turned completely upside down the day he returns home to find Helen dead on the kitchen floor. Ever the actuary, Schmidt calculates that he himself has a 75-percent chance of dying within the next nine years, and he's now determined to make every new day count. So he hops in the Winnebago and sets out to do something meaningful: Put a stop to Jeannie's wedding. The film dares to ask you to care a fig about a completely ordinary and not terribly likeable old man, and perhaps one of the great accomplishments of Nicholson's career is that you do — at least a little. Typical of earlier Payne and Taylor collaborations CITIZEN RUTH (1996) and ELECTION (1999), the writing is sharp and often blithely cynical, though not above using a shooting star to prompt a lump in the throat. The tone, however, is at times dangerously uncertain. Once Schmidt arrives in Denver and finds himself in the bosom of Randall's trashy friends and kooky family — headed by a hilarious but larger-than-life Kathy Bates — it exudes the slight but unmistakable whiff of condescension.