Picture: Producers Michael Besman, Harry Gittes
Director: Alexander Payne
Actor: Jack Nicholson
Supporting actress: Kathy Bates
Adapted screenplay: Payne, Jim Taylor
Editing: Kevin Tent

A movie in which Jack Nicholson galvanizes the screen is never too far away from at least one Oscar nomination (for its three-time winning star), but “About Schmidt” has the earmarks of an award breakthrough for its creators as well.

Writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have proved to be whip-smart purveyors of flatland sensibilities in their previous Omaha, Neb., pics “Citizen Ruth” (1997) and “Election” (1999), the latter earning the pair an Academy Award nomination for their screenplay.

Their third movie about Nebraskans is less satirical and more emotional — Nicholson’s lonely, retired widower tries to regain a sense of purpose by preventing his daughter’s impending marriage to a loser — but still infused with a winking humor that hides a richly earned poignancy.

It’s a prestige pic without pretension, which could make it a fave with Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters.

The often bleak subject matter might be seen as a turnoff, but with so many year-end movies carrying dark themes, Payne and Taylor’s comedy chops could work in their favor.

Oscar winners about Middle America like “Fargo” and “American Beauty” prevailed with decidedly more acidity, whereas the potshots about Midwesterners in “About Schmidt” are expertly interspersed with genuine emotion.

Solid box office will mean something, too, should it catch on with audiences.

Bittersweet worked for Nicholson with his last Oscar win — for “As Good as It Gets” — and the film has a feeling not unlike the stark comedy of his early ’70s heyday. He’s as good as it gets when it comes to Oscar nominations: 11 over his entire career, covering a wide range of portrayals and styles.

Also looking strong is “Misery” Oscar winner Kathy Bates, who could snag a supporting nom for her eccentric comic portrayal.

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