About Schmidt is another pitch-black comedy from director Alexander Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor, the team responsible for Citizen Ruth and Election. While About Schmidt features Jack Nicholson's most impressively controlled performance in many years, the film's mix of bleakness and cheap laughs has to be seen as a disappointment after the sharp satire and moral complexity of Election. The film starts well, with Nicholson bringing a bitter retiree into sharp focus. His contempt for his chipper wife, Helen (June Squibb), and his resentment at being pushed out of his job simmer under the surface until he begins writing to a Tanzanian orphan named Ndugu, whom he "sponsors" after seeing a grim charity infomercial. It's a conceit that seems too clever, but it works surprisingly well, allowing the audience to see, in Schmidt's straightforward ramblings ("Who is this old woman who lives in my house?"), another layer of mendacity in how he sees himself. We can see what an unreliable narrator he is, though Payne sometimes belabors the point, as when Schmidt is writing about using a road trip as an opportunity to enjoy the time he has left on earth, as a bird dropping splatters across his windshield. Every relationship in Schmidt's life is tinged with self-delusion. His idealized view of his daughter, Jeannie (a sharp turn by Hope Davis), threatens to destroy their shaky relationship when he decides to interfere with her plans to marry a dorky waterbed salesman, Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Randall and his clan are portrayed as buffoons, mostly, but Kathy Bates, in a bold performance, lends some dignity to Randall's crudely free-spirited mother. The film's condescending attitude toward these characters produces some easy laughs at their expense, but that doesn't alleviate the unrelenting grimness of Payne's mildly disappointing comedy.