[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: Alexander Payne films don't have the distinct visual styles of movies by Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, to name two other filmmakers of his generation, but they are quickly recognizable just the same. Payne's five feature films are quasi-tragic comedies with hopeful but not fully redemptive conclusions about people struggling with significant life changes. Protagonists in Payne's movies are always flawed. Relationships are usually difficult, distant, damaging, or all of the above. And deception is commonplace. On the face of that description, Payne's movies mustn't seem distinct at all. In fact, I think I just described every crappy romantic comedy from the past decade or more. But what sets Payne apart is the way he applies these themes—unflinchingly exposing his characters' worst tendencies before ultimately regarding them with great sympathy—and, even more so, who he applies them to. If Payne's films are known for anything, it's for being about average Americans, emphasis on the "average."
Of course, at the movies, where Jimmy Stewart can be considered an "everyman" and Kathrine Heigl can be cast as the proverbial "girl next door," "average" is never ordinary, which is precisely why Payne's characters generate so much attention, because they're often ruthlessly unexceptional. Ruth in Citizen Ruth (1996) is a promiscuous glue-huffer who becomes a pawn in an abortion debate. Jim in Election (1999) is an awarded high school teacher who can't outsmart his students or pull off an extramarital affair. Warren in About Schmidt (2002) is a retiree with no interests or usefulness. Miles in Sideways (2004) is a writer who can't get published, a wine snob who can't control his drinking and an introverted romantic who can't move on from his divorce. Matt in The Descendants (2011) is a husband who doesn't know his wife and a father who doesn't know his kids. And those are just the main characters.
Because Payne's characters tend to live modest lives (some of them in modest Middle America), and because Payne is so fearless in his examination of their faults, and often uses his characters' shortcomings as mechanisms for humor, his films have often been attacked as condescending. In this conversation we'll go into each of the five films mentioned above, as well as Payne's memorable vignette from 2006's Paris, Je T'Aime, which does little to deflect the accusations of condescension. But let's start by addressing the elephant in the room. Ed, does Alexander Payne look down his nose at his characters, or ask us to mock his characters, for being unremarkable? Is his humor mean-spirited and class-conscious? In short, is he condescending?
Ed Howard: That's cutting right to the core, because my major problem with Payne is that yes, he often is condescending. Prior to this conversation, I never really thought too much about Payne. I'd always liked Election, but I saw his subsequent two features when they came out and promptly forgot about them. Now I've revisited his work in a condensed period, including his new film The Descendants and his first feature Citizen Ruth, which I hadn't seen before. Perhaps as a result of this compressed viewing schedule, I'm overwhelmed by the sense that he often presents pathetic, emotionally troubled and outright unlikable people as though he's examining them under a microscope rather than really breaching the distance between director and characters, or audience and characters. He wallows in the suffering of his characters while laughing at them and encouraging the audience to do the same.
It's a troubling attitude to detect in a director, and it's especially naked in his first film, the bleak comedy Citizen Ruth, a vicious and omnidirectional satire/parody of the abortion debate, which has bile to spare for both the religious right and the liberal activists who oppose them. Citizen Ruth, more even than Payne's later films, is dominated by a mocking, condescending tone. Behind every grotesque closeup and outrage-laced line of dialogue is a director intent on demonstrating how much better he is than the characters he's created. One could argue that Payne is simply skewering both sides of a very public debate, trying to get each side to recognize their own absurdities, but both sides here are so caricatured and extreme that I suspect no one will recognize themselves in any of these characters. Indeed, whereas Payne's subsequent films, particularly his three most recent works, have earned him a reputation for mild-mannered realism and quiet character observation, Citizen Ruth is a bold, sloppy satire with all of its characters drawn in the broadest possible strokes. Ruth herself (Laura Dern) is a perpetually befuddled paint-and-glue-huffer, a homeless woman who's left a train of shattered relationships and unwanted children behind her. But she's the most fully rendered character in the movie despite the willfully outrageous back story, thanks in large part to Dern's expressive and sympathetic performance, as well as the little meta flourishes that make Dern's Ruth a wide-eyed audience surrogate unable to comprehend the media and political circus assembling around her. By the end of the movie, Payne even seems to have some affection for this deeply fucked-up individual, and her final moment in the film, in which she runs away from it all with an excited little fist-pump, suggests at least some transient and probably soon-to-be-wasted joy and triumph. (It's perhaps telling that Payne, rarely one to provide even that much good feeling, says the ending was forced on him by Harvey Weinstein.)
If Ruth is a complicated and thorny character, it's hard to argue that the other people in the film are anything other than condescending caricatures. After her latest arrest, Ruth stays with a perpetually smiling Christian family who manipulate her as a symbol for their anti-abortion protests, and later she leaves them to stay with a lesbian couple who promptly begin using Ruth as a symbol for pro-choice activism instead. No matter who Ruth is with and which side she's temporarily on, Payne and cinematographer James Glennon put a lot of emphasis on caricatured closeups of faces: the exaggeratedly smiling faces of the Christian Stoney family, the tight-lipped righteous outrage of the lesbian Rachel (Kelly Preston), and especially the solicitous, eerily unwavering grin of anti-abortion Nurse Pat (Kathleen Noone) and the disheveled doctor (Kenneth Mars) who aids her in "counseling" women about their choices. There are so many faces of smug certitude and indignation in this movie, so many faces locked into the rigor mortis of fake sweet smiles. Payne's camera unfailing homes in on these expressions, making the faces seem grotesque, because on some level he seems to despise and ridicule everyone in this movie, mocking their religious values (including the hippie spirituality of the liberals), their fashion sense, their politics, their ways of speaking and their faces. There's no doubt this is a mean film, which might be alright—so much great comedy is mean—if it wasn't also so shallow. Its meanness doesn't seem to go any deeper than cheap shots and simplistic caricatures.
JB: There's no doubt that Citizen Ruth is populated by caricatures, and because the film has such a consistently mocking tone it's perhaps the easiest Payne movie to label as condescending. But I'm not sure that it is, at least not when viewed independently of Payne's other films. I grant you that Payne looks down on the way these characters behave, and if that, in and of itself, makes Citizen Ruth condescending, then it is. But the absurdity in Citizen Ruth is so universal that I've got to believe that Payne feels he's represented within it—not by a specific character but by a collection of them, not realistically but comedically. Citizen Ruth, it seems to me, owes a lot to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951). The movies are significantly different in that Ruth is an unwitting pawn, whereas Kirk Douglas' Chuck Tatum is a conniving manipulator, but both films end with depictions of ambulance-chasing, scandal-hungry, self-centered hoards of onlookers that are satirical in tone but hit close to home just the same.
If I got the sense that Payne is suggesting the abortion debate is only a Middle American problem—Citizen Ruth is one of three Payne films to be set in Omaha, Nebraska—I'd find the condescension argument more convincing, but I don't get that sense at all. True, Ruth is a homeless huffer. True, the Stoneys are conservative Christians. True, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) and Rachel are moon-loving hippies. True, all of these characters are cartoons, to some degree or another. But when the media and the onlookers arrive late in the film, I sense that Payne is suggesting the connection of these characters to the world around them. No, you might not see yourself in the Stoneys, but if you're pro-life, like it or not they represent you. Likewise, you might not see yourself in Diane and Rachel, but if you're pro-choice, they represent you. The point Payne seems to be making is that in the abortion debate neither side can be completely proud of the tactics used by soldiers on the frontlines, and he rams that message home by drawing the characters in screwball extremes.
Of course, I should admit my own bias might be clouding my judgment. I'm pro-choice and unreligious, and I realize Payne is harsher on the pro-life folks, whom he depicts as even more devious and corrupt than their pro-choice counterparts. But I think the larger point remains true. What Payne is looking down on is the behavior itself, in which both the unborn child and the pregnant woman are treated like military objectives to be won or annihilated while morality and righteousness are thrown out the window. Is this judgmental? Absolutely. But that isn't unusual at the cinema, and that's not why Payne is labeled condescending. He gets that label, it seems to me, because of a perception that he's judging people based on their lower class. And although it's undeniably true that the characters in Citizen Ruth are modest at best and trashy at worst, I don't believe Payne is directly linking the social status of these characters to the content of their character. Am I wrong?
EH: I wouldn't go so far as to say you're wrong, but I think there's room for doubt about what exactly Payne is doing here. It's very telling to compare the broad lower-class caricatures of Citizen Ruth to the middle-class intellectuals and would-be creative types of Sideways or the upper-middle-class professionals of The Descendants. Certainly, Payne doesn't spare those later characters some gentle mockery, but I don't think he eviscerates his more cultured and sophisticated characters the way he does the lower-class Christian conservative Stoneys or even the hippie liberal lesbians Diane and Rachel. There's crassness and nastiness in Citizen Ruth that seems to be tempered when Payne turns his attention to characters closer to his own interests and socioeconomic milieu. He takes some very easy cheap shots in this movie, like the scene where self-righteous religious crusader Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), shirtless and hairy, reclines in a chair and pompously extols his own virtue while a fey young boy oils up his hands to massage the religious leader's bare back. (Admittedly, it's an almost irresistibly funny set-up, at least in part because it's Reynolds playing the part.) Later, Ruth's mom tries to guilt her daughter into keeping the baby until Ruth shouts back, by megaphone, that she had to give her mom's boyfriend a blowjob, to which this paragon of motherly virtue responds, "Don't bring that up again, that's ancient history. I've been saved!" At moments like these, I definitely get the sense that Payne is mocking lower class white trash culture, savaging the sexual dysfunctions and hypocritical religions of these specifically Middle American characters.
Payne isn't unfailingly negative—I suspect he has some respect for pro-choice activist Harlan (M.C. Gainey), who seems to have a moral stability that's utterly missing in everyone else on either side—but for me his obvious contempt for virtually everyone in the movie sabotages his attempts to make satirical points about the political beliefs represented here. I don't get the sense that he's "suggesting the connection of these characters to the world around them" so much as he is self-consciously trying to spread the bile around so he can claim impartiality; after mocking Christian conservatives early in the movie, he seems to think that he needs to balance things out. Lesbian liberals can also sing goofy spiritual songs! Balance! Payne's sensibility here is reminiscent of the overtly political episodes in the mostly disappointing later seasons of South Park, in which Matt Stone and Trey Parker mock both sides of any given debate so assiduously that it begins to seem less like even-handed cynicism about everyone and everything and more like a weaselly way to avoid taking a clear stand on a divisive issue.
JB: That last argument is especially compelling. Indeed, maybe all that lesbian moon chanting is Payne's way of paying admission at the Louvre before stealing one of the paintings—a pittance made en route to a larger calculated attack. But I don't think the charges of condescension come from a sense that Payne is cowardly or disingenuously talking out of both sides of his mouth so much as a feeling that he has enough cynicism to spread around to everyone. Thus, if "everyone" in Citizen Ruth is worthy of Payne's critical viewpoint, the real issue becomes what "everyone" in Citizen Ruth has in common that makes them worthy of that criticism, cynicism and mocking. For me, as I stated earlier, what these characters share is a tendency to act selfishly under the guise of altruism. It's that hypocrisy I think Payne is attacking, but it's nevertheless true that these characters also happen to fit Hollywood's caricature of poor white trash, and that's what gets Payne in hot water.
What I find interesting is that the condescension charge is pointed at a film like Citizen Ruth but not at other films populated by people behaving badly who may or may not be, according to the popular expression, too stupid to live. I've never heard anyone suggest that The Hangover is condescending to white men, or that Bridesmaids is condescending to women, or that producer and lead actress Sarah Jessica Parker looks down on her character in the Sex and the City series (if anything, Parker has been criticized for the opposite). So is Citizen Ruth, for all its madcap antics, just not ludicrous enough to seem non-confrontational and not glamorous or forgiving enough to seem redeeming? I make that argument somewhat knowing the answer: the key difference, of course, is that Payne is making a statement about these characters' faults, whereas those other comedies aren't (at least not as severely). But abortion isn't a class issue, so why is it that that people assume Payne is making a class argument? You pointed out, and rightfully so, that Payne's films have seemed to judge characters according to their socioeconomic status, from the cartoonish depictions of Citizen Ruth to the more compassionate depictions of The Descendants, and that's true, at least broadly speaking. But it might also be coincidence, the byproduct of a common evolution of many filmmakers toward the mainstream.
To me, when I boil Citizen Ruth down to its essence, I see behaviors. On the one side there are the pro-lifers, equating abortion with the killings in Auschwitz, Dachau and the Vietnam War, as they cruelly manipulate Ruth to make a decision out of guilt and fear, a hardly Christian way to operate, even if one believes in the result. And on the other side there are the pro-choicers who keep telling Ruth that the pro-lifers are preventing her from making the decision that she "wants" to make, which isn't true because Ruth isn't aware enough to really "want" anything. Payne may have more fun mocking the un-Christian actions of the religious pro-lifers, but he doesn't go easy on the pro-choicers, who at one point arrive at the Stoney home armed and later effectively hold Ruth captive after kidnapping her. Citizen Ruth is full of closeups, as if Payne is accentuating the way that people keep lying to Ruth's face. It's these actions that deserve ridicule, like the way that the nurse smiles with delight while traumatizing Ruth with the anti-abortion propaganda, and if they were carried out by people of greater means, as in a Woody Allen movie, they'd be no less despicable.
EH: Oh, there's no doubt that these people would be despicable no matter what class they belong to. The scene where Ruth visits the phony clinic is so squirmy and horrifying. It's a chilling depiction of the ways in which women actually are manipulated in fake "clinics" like this, where the real and rather obvious purpose is not to give women information or medical help but to frighten and cajole them into making a particular choice. Payne's capacity for withering satire is especially apparent in this sequence, as he piles on the outrages until the whole thing seems absurd: the unnaturally grinning Nurse Pat, who seems more and more delighted the more disgusted Ruth becomes, the doctor's casual manner as he hands his patient a tiny plastic baby, the surrealism of the moment when they convince Ruth to name the baby that she wants to abort. In a way, I wonder if the absurdity of it all doesn't work against Payne's point in some ways, because by exaggerating the personalities of the doctor and the nurse and really piling on the weirdness, it almost makes the whole thing seem unreal, disconnected from reality. It's as though at times the satire is so effective and so broad that it distances the film from the very real situations that Payne is drawing on. There really are places that do to real women pretty much what Nurse Pat and the doctor do to Ruth, but it's easy to forget that because of how outrageously bizarre Payne makes it all seem.
A much more effective technique is the way Payne has Ruth subtly break the fourth wall at times. As fucked up as Ruth is, she still frequently observes what's happening around her with a dazed but critical eye that makes her an audience surrogate trapped between two outrageous and exaggerated extremes. The best example is the moment after Ruth's visit to the anti-abortion "clinic." As the nurse and Gail chatter about how well the patient is doing, Ruth slowly turns, incredulous, towards the camera, shooting the audience a conspiratorial look as though she too can't believe what's going on here. In a subsequent shot, Gail takes Ruth out to a beauty spa to celebrate her "decision" about her baby, and Ruth still has a numb expression on her face beneath the green gunk caked on her face. Later, when Diane and Rachel are singing, they enter the frame one by one, their profiles to the camera, their faces upturned rapturously towards the moon. Then, shattering the formal rigidity of the composition, Ruth strolls into the shot in the background, looking at her new guardians as though puzzling over some exceptionally abstract piece of art, trying to figure out what's going on here.
I think these moments are probably the best argument that Payne might not have a condescending attitude towards Ruth, at least. Indeed, in these scenes he aligns her with the audience's distaste for and bemusement with the other characters, using her glances towards the camera and self-conscious disruptions of the frame to invite the audience to share in her askew perspective on the craziness around her.
JB: What I find particularly interesting about Ruth is that Payne and Dern manage to make her such a sympathetic figure even though she's completely irresponsible, unforgivably stupid and extremely insensitive. It starts with the opening sequence, which is one of the best in the film. We see Ruth having unenthusiastic and uncomfortable intercourse on a sheetless mattress in a dirty apartment littered with beer bottles. On the soundtrack plays Bobby Caldwell's rendition of the romantic and thus ironic "All The Way." Then we hear the sound of a needle skipping on a record player and "All The Way" disappears from the soundtrack as Ruth gets kicked out of the apartment by the guy who just fucked her. We're less than 90 seconds into the movie, but we already get a terrific sense of Ruth: she mixes with the down-and-out crowd, she's willing to trade her body for a roof over her head or drugs or both, she has no control of her life and, we can be pretty sure, she's got no one who loves her. This not only makes us a bit more understanding when we find out that she's had numerous unplanned pregnancies and been a failure as a mom, it also makes us appreciate why she's so easily manipulated throughout the rest of the film. She's desperate for some attention, some indication that her life is worth something. Thus, in one of the film's funny-tragic moments, Ruth erupts with joy when she finds out that her life is worth $15,000, which to her sounds like $15 million, provided she has the baby.
I've never been a fan of Dern. In fact, that's putting it mildly. In most films, she comes off to me like an actor struggling to look deep—lots of scrunched facial expressions that come off like acting gestures, not expressions of actual emotion. But I find her terrific here, very natural, and that's key to Ruth, because what's ultimately endearing about her is her sincerity. It comes through in that scene in which she learns of the $15,000 dollar reward and bounces out the door, ready to run off with the pro-lifers again. It comes through in the scene in which she profanely reenacts an argument with an ex-boyfriend in front of the young Stoney boy. And it comes through in what I think is the most hilarious moment in the movie, when a startled Ruth, running away from Diane and Rachel, winds up on her back kicking both feet in the air in an absurd attempt at self-defense.
I think this movie would play a lot differently if Ruth's drug of choice were crack or heroin. Instead, her huffing habit is less unseemly than pathetic, which makes Ruth seem so hopelessly lost you can't help but feel for her. "All my life I never had a chance," Ruth says through tears at one point, "if I had money, my life would be different." While poverty and irresponsibility aren't necessarily linked, it's hard to disagree with her notion that things have been stacked against her. Regardless, when Ruth becomes a pawn caught between two sides more concerned with a child that hasn't been (and maybe never will be) born than with the woman directly in front of them, there's no question that she gets a raw deal.
EH: I find Ruth's declaration that her life would be better if only she had money to be wholly unconvincing, and I wonder if Payne intends for us to believe that or not. Ruth certainly believes it, though: as you say, $15,000 seems like an unimaginable amount to someone who's never really had any money, and I think that's why she's so convinced that it would change her life. By the end of the film, Ruth finally acquires the $15,000 she's been scheming to get one way or another, and when she first opens the bag full of money Payne cleverly stages it like a birth, placing the camera inside the bag as it's being unzipped, as though shooting from a baby's point of view as it emerges from the womb, with Ruth's gasping, grinning face peering in. On the soundtrack, a chorus of hallelujahs accompanies this transcendent experience. By now, Ruth knows that, through no choice of her own, she isn't actually going to have another baby, so the bag full of money replaces the child she might have had, and she reacts to the money with the kind of pride and pleasure that most people reserve for their children.
But will this money really make much of a difference in Ruth's life? Early on, we see her go begging for money from one of ex-boyfriends, the father of two of her neglected children, and it's obvious from his demeanor and everything they say to one another that this is far from the first time that he's given her money. The addict pattern is pretty engrained in Ruth, and within minutes of getting a few dollars she's at a hardware store buying glue, holing up in an alley to pour it into a paper bag and get high. Throughout the film, anytime she gets the opportunity and the money, this is the pattern she repeats, and there's no reason to think that much is going to change just because she now has a sizable amount of money for the first time. The triumphant mood of the film's final minutes is infused with more than a little irony, because even as Ruth reacts to this windfall like it's a religious experience, raising a joyful fist above her head a few seconds before the credits roll, there's a sense that this is a transient victory, that she'll be subsumed by her addictions and soon squander the money that had seemed so full of promise for her. For Ruth, class means more than how much money she has; she's class-bound not only because she's poor but because of the behaviors that have become second nature to her over the years.
Incidentally, while I agree that Dern is exceptional here, I don't agree about your broader assessment of her talents. In fact, I think she is generally excellent and almost always displays the naturalness and depth that you only detect in her in this film. She's especially good at playing brassy, downtrodden characters like Ruth, or like Lula in Wild At Heart, women who we can't help but feel for and root for despite, or because of, their fuck-ups and inadequacies. She's also frankly astonishing as the center and raison d'etre of David Lynch's Inland Empire, a film built around one of her most varied and powerful performances. She's a remarkable actress and, whatever ambivalence I harbor about Citizen Ruth as a whole, Dern's Ruth is a big part of what works best here.
JB: I think you're right when you say that this money won't save Ruth. She's too far gone now, and I didn't mean to suggest that this new relative wealth will be her ticket to a life of self-dependency and the straight and narrow. (Although, it does give her a chance to start fresh, which she clearly needs, and maybe the experience of having so much attention placed on her might give her a new perspective. Admittedly, that's a hopeful reading.) Plus, if Payne thinks that all the other characters are "white trash," as you and others have charged, maybe Ruth's whining is just yet another sign of her unforgivable ignorance. "I don't got anything," Ruth screams in the same episode of self-pity, "you all got everything." Perhaps Payne is showing how oblivious Ruth is, that she not only thinks $15,000 is enough to retire on but also that Diane and Rachel are living the high life.
Still, I feel as if Payne is making an important emotional and empathetic argument with that scene, because in that moment Ruth knows that she doesn't want that child, but she also feels as if she can't turn down that money. She's stuck. It's a higher stakes version of the opening scene, when Ruth subjects herself to sex because she needs a roof over her head for the night. Ruth is ultimately responsible for her predicament, sure, but the larger point remains: People struggling to survive don't have the luxury of making decisions based on principle.
That actually sets us up to talk about Payne's second film, Election, which begins with Matthew Broderick's character, a high school teacher named Jim McAllister, asking his class about the difference between morals and ethics. This turns out to be a kind of retroactive joke, because over the course of the film the characters in Election, and McAllister specifically, behave both immorally and unethically in equal measure, usually simultaneously, so that the distinction between the two is hardly necessary. Based on a Tom Perrotta novel that Payne adapted with Jim Taylor, Election chronicles a race for student body president that can be seen as a satirical depiction of our actual government—power corrupts, nice guys finish last and those who play to win do so, one way or another. But if you asked me what Election is about, I'd say it's much more personal, an examination of characters wrestling between what they want and what they know to be right.
EH: That theme applies mainly to McAllister himself, the civics teacher who by the end of the film has committed adultery and election fraud and destroyed his life in the process. McAllister's tragedy is precisely that he has such a keen sense of ethics, that he knows what is right and what he should do, and instead he continually engages in unethical and immoral behavior, justifying it to himself all the while. The other characters in the film don't always seem as aware of the ethical decisions they're making. Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) does wrestle, like McAllister, with trying to do the right thing, but he's such an earnest doofus that he doesn't seem to fully comprehend the issues or the choices he's facing—and maybe because of that, he generally does the right thing while McAllister's compulsive over-thinking leads him astray. Paul's lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), on the other hand, doesn't seem the least bit concerned with ethics or doing what's right; she just wants to get kicked out of school so she can get sent to an all-girls school and effectively double her chances of finding a soul mate.
And then there's Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the eager overachiever whose run for class president winds up causing such tremendous problems for McAllister. Tracy, I think it's safe to say, does not wrestle with decisions between what's right and what she wants personally, because Tracy is wired not to make any distinction between those two categories. As we hear in Tracy's pattering, self-justifying voiceovers, what's right, in her mind, is inevitably whatever she wants, whatever is best for her. She is capable of some pretty astonishing displays of self-righteousness. At one point, Tracy has torn down the election posters of her rival Paul and thrown them away. Tammy witnessed Tracy throwing away the posters, but instead of turning Tracy in, Tammy takes responsibility herself. Tracy, who thought she'd finally been caught, has a brief moment of disbelief and relief, and then immediately launches into a stream of invective at the other girl, acting as though she really believes that Tammy was the one who tore the posters down. This is the behavior of someone so delusional, so convinced of her own essential rightness, that ethics cease to have any meaning for her. Tracy Flick believes that she must be class president, that she must succeed and excel in everything she does. Her own personal idea of what's right starts and ends with whatever will achieve her goals.
And that's a big part of what Election is about: the self-justifications and mental constructs that allow or encourage people to do some pretty terrible things while convincing themselves, at least at the time, that it's the right thing to do. In that respect, though Tracy is oblivious to any ethics outside of herself, while McAllister knows all too well the difference between right and wrong, they're not so different in their rationalizations for their less-than-noble acts.
JB: Yeah, what's interesting about the two characters is that Tracy thinks she's the center of the universe, while McAllister knows that he isn't, and yet they each make similar mistakes based on a desire to bring balance to The Force, if you will. In McAllister's case, that means enticing Paul to run for president and then manipulating the results, all because he finds Tracy's sense of self-entitlement annoying and even blames her for the sexual relationship that broke up the marriage of one of his colleagues. In Tracy's case, it just means doing whatever it takes to ensure her own success. The scene in which she lectures Tammy is a good example of her arrogance, but my favorite example comes in the terrific sequence in which Tracy, Tammy and Paul are shown on the night before the election saying evening prayers.
"Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things," Tracy begins, "but now I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow, because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn't, as you well know. I realize that it was your divine hand that disqualified Tammy Metzler and now I'm asking that you go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong, so that I may carry out your will on Earth as it is in Heaven." It would be difficult to pack more warped superiority into such a short prayer. Tracy chalks up her jealous destruction of Paul's posters to an act of God, while suggesting she's poised to act as an agent of Jesus Christ, but the kicker is the phrase "I must insist." Talk about condescending. In actuality, Tracy's prayer is based around the idea that Jesus is an agent who must do her will.
The writing in that scene and the illustration of character it provides are apt examples of Payne's greatest strengths as a filmmaker. On that note, Election might be his strongest film, and Tracy is certainly one of his greatest characters. Reese Witherspoon is fantastic, evoking Tracy's essence through her crisp annunciation, her forceful delivery, her almost too perfect posture, her pursed lips and her flared nostrils. It's a scathing portrayal but a sympathetic one, too, which is a Payne hallmark. Because as obnoxious as Tracy is, and as much as we might agree with McAllister that she needs to be knocked off her high horse, there's no question that she works hard for what she wants—making buttons, posters and cupcakes, getting up early to set up her station to get enough signatures to be on the ballot in the first place, and so on. And what we realize long before Tracy does is that she's a prisoner of her own ambition. She doesn't really have friends, so she finds nurturing only through success. That's why it's hard not to feel warm inside when Tracy first learns she has won the election and jumps around with the giddiness of a young girl and with the awkwardness of a young woman who was always in such a hurry to grow up that she missed out on most bouncy young girl moments. It's a bittersweet moment, and Payne excels at creating those.
EH: I agree that Election is Payne's best film, and the obvious tenderness and sadness that the director feels for Tracy, mingled with satirical contempt for her actions, is what saves the film and prevents it from being simply a mean-spirited portrayal of vile people. The glimpses we get behind Tracy's crisp, efficient facade suggest that she's actually a pretty sad person, even if she's too busy and determined to quite realize it herself. The few appearances by her mother provide a pretty obvious source for Tracy's dysfunctions, for one thing; when Tracy thinks that she's lost the election and is absolutely distraught, her mother "comforts" her by wondering if her posters weren't good enough. Later, even victory can't extinguish the sadness and emptiness in Tracy. Her triumph is mingled with a realization that being class president doesn't make her any less lonely. Her loneliness casts her affair with a married teacher in a very different light from the way McAllister sees her as a seductress and a homewrecker; when Tracy thinks back on that affair, she says that she misses their talks most of all. Tracy, isolated at school by her fierce drive to be the best, was easy prey for an older authority figure who could appeal to her ego and leverage her inability to communicate with people her own age. Her internal monologues towards the end of the film, in which she laments that no one wants to sign her yearbook and then complains that she hasn't found any kindred spirits in college like she thought she would, are heartbreaking. Tracy is the opposite of self-aware, and she doesn't realize how her focused, monomaniacal behavior pushes people away, so she simply can't understand why she's a pariah while someone like Paul, despite losing the election, continues to be effortlessly popular and broadly well-liked.
Paul himself is a pretty interesting character, too. He's a jock stereotype in a whole lot of ways, and Payne ekes a lot of humor out of Paul's stupidity and lunkhead obliviousness. His complete lack of understanding of the dynamic between his sister and his new girlfriend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia)—who goes out with him mainly to drive home to Tammy that their lesbian dalliance is over—provides a rich vein of brutally funny humor. But Payne also defies and subverts the jock cliches because Paul, as dull as he is, isn't a jerk or a bully. He actually deserves his popularity because he's earnest and good-natured and friendly and, when you get down to it, a pretty decent guy. His prayers during the montage you mentioned couldn't be more different from Tracy's: where she aggressively demands that God fulfill her will, Paul leaves the election results in God's hands, not asking anything for himself, instead simply requesting help for his troubled sister. This is a movie about ethics and the ignorance of ethics, and the character of Paul suggests that some people stumble unknowingly into the basic moral decency that eludes the intelligent, self-conscious McAllister. The position of the film is, perhaps, that ethics can't really be taught, that doing the right thing goes far beyond religion or civics. McAllister, as much as he understands about ethics in theory, doesn't get it at all in practice.
JB: That's exactly right. While McAllister tries to look beyond the obvious, immediate wrongness of his actions to find some deeper truth that will justify his meddling, Paul goes with his gut. The election is decided in Tracy's favor because Paul refuses to vote for himself. Tracy has worked hard, and Paul finds her deserving, and when faced with the opportunity to vote for himself, Paul finds that he can't. He's not obeying any understood code of ethics. He's not really even obeying his morals. He's just doing what feels right.
My favorite scene with Paul, and perhaps even my favorite moment in the entire movie, is the one in which the three candidates deliver their speeches to the student body crowded into the gymnasium. The first to speak is Tracy, who serves up rhetoric worthy of a United States presidential campaign, the camera capturing her in the foreground with an American flag hanging from the rafters behind her. Then comes Paul, the injured star quarterback, who is so obviously loved and yet is so out of his element. He nervously approaches the microphone, takes a folded piece of notebook paper out of his pocket and then reads his speech—featuring all the earmarks of the typical high school essay—as if it is entirely without punctuation, pausing only when he needs to take a breath. In another film, Paul's tunnel vision on those written words would be evidence of insincerity, but here it's the opposite. Paul isn't the smartest guy, but it's obvious that what he's written is from the heart, and that this leadership role outside of sports is terrifying for him. When Paul completes his speech his huge smile of accomplishment makes me want to do what the students don't: erupt in applause.
It's the painful yet observant honesty of scenes like these that make me feel that the condescension charge often applied to Payne is inaccurate more often than not. While there's some comedic exaggeration to those speeches, no doubt, there's a hell of a lot of real-world truth to them, too. (The election speeches at my high school certainly had a lot more in common with what's portrayed here than with, say, the polish of the big song-and-dance number at the high school rally in last year's charming Easy A.) What Payne does in his films, in scenes like that, but even more so with the general mise-en-scène, shaped here by everything from McAllister's humble blue car with the awkward self-locking seatbelts to the terrible blue furniture in the faculty workroom, is show us a world that more closely resembles the one we live in. Mainstream Hollywood films (and Payne teeters on the edge of mainstream) have a terrible habit of making everything look like, well, a movie: the lighting is always bright and even, the colors sharp, the people trim and beautiful, the cars new and clean, the restaurants cozy and welcoming, and so on. Payne defies that, and because we've become so desensitized to the way Hollywood gives everything a Blu-ray friendly glow, it seems radical.
I don't mean to imply that Payne is a truth-teller; that label doesn't reflect the tone of his films, which can be completely cartoonish. Rather, Payne's method is showing us very real places that all of us recognize from experience in exactly the way that we experience them in the real world. Thus, almost every shot at Carver High School seems to emphasize the cinder block walls, and the school offices have that distinct glow that you get in a windowless room with florescent lights, and the restaurant where McAllister runs into Paul looks like so many breakfast-anytime eateries with cheap upholstery and fake plants. I understand why people see these distinctly non-Hollywood images and assume that Payne must be taking it out on the lower class. But what I think is happening is that Payne is being punished for the excellence with which he establishes a sense of place, and his willingness to look at the world we live in as it exists, not as Hollywood reinterprets it to make it seem like even the average among us are movie stars.
EH: I think that's fair. As cartoonish as Election and Citizen Ruth are, there's definitely a sense of prosaic reality in those films that points the way forward to the less exaggerated, more observational aesthetic of Payne's subsequent films. In the concrete details of the mise-en-scène, in the decorations and objects that populate Payne's world, he's always had a realist's eye for arranging artifacts of the real world. It's no coincidence, after all, that his first three features are all set in Omaha, Nebraska, where Payne actually grew up. These films feel lived-in. But what makes Election in particular work so well, in my opinion, is that Payne here finds a near-perfect balance between the over-the-top satirical bile of Citizen Ruth and the more restrained (and, I'd argue, often maudlin) tone of his later films. Payne's films always have the mundane mise-en-scène nailed, and they always have at least a tinge of the mocking satire, but I don't think any of the other films he's made have hit this sweet spot quite like Election does. I was a little nervous about revisiting this film for this conversation, considering my mixed feelings about Payne's other films, but I'm happy to find that it actually holds up really well. And, a few scenes aside—the unflattering freeze frames of Tracy early on come to mind—I think it does a good job of avoiding the condescending, mean-spirited tone that I too often detect in the rest of Payne's work.
It helps that whatever else it is, Election is an almost irresistibly funny movie. It's funny in its broad strokes, like the crude humor in McAllister's description of Tracy's affair with a married teacher. It's even funnier in its subtle touches, like the way that McAllister describes democracy as a choice between apples and oranges, drawing the two fruits as identical circles on a blackboard, providing both an unhelpful visual aid and a clever joke about the limits of democratic choice. It's funny in ways that are awkwardly real and heartbreaking, like when Tammy gives Lisa a love note that reads, "If you died right now, I would throw myself under one of my dad's cement trucks so I could be poured into your tomb." It's funny just to listen to the characters chatter away in voiceover, each of them with their own distinctive and quirky dictions.
I'm stressing this so much because Election is really the last Payne movie that can comfortably be called an outright comedy. Not that his subsequent films aren't sometimes humorous. Nor does he abandon the satirical edge that dominates his first two features. But it's pretty clear that after Election Payne shifted the elements of his style around and, starting with About Schmidt, allowed the bitterness and melancholy that had always been present in his films to really come to the surface. Based on About Schmidt and the other two films Payne has made since then, I'm not sure the change has really been for the best.
JB: About Schmidt is Payne's weakest film. It's about a man struggling to deal with his retirement who then suffers the death of his wife and the marriage of his daughter to a "nincompoop" he thinks unworthy of her. The film is capably acted, from Jack Nicholson's melancholy Warren Schmidt to Dermot Mulroney's endearingly nincompoopish Randall, but as a whole the movie is as dynamic as the Nebraska horizon, which is to say it isn't dynamic at all. In a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Payne suggested half jokingly that the only movie he's made that isn't too long is his short in Paris, Je T'Aime, and while it's true that all of Payne's films seem a bit overstuffed, none are more clumsily paced than About Schmidt, which at 125 minutes is either 90 minutes too long or 200 minutes too short.
In terms of both theme and narrative, About Schmidt is like a junkyard dog chained to a pole, forever roaming in the same familiar circle. I don't mean to apply Syd Fieldesque rules to this film, demanding that the central dramatic conflict be defined within the first 15 minutes, launching the plot into its arc, but it's worth pointing out that Warren doesn't take any action in his life until 45 minutes into the film, when in short succession he goes to the grocery store for the first time since his wife's death, confronts his wife's former lover and gets into the RV and heads off to Colorado to see his daughter with the intent to talk her out of getting married. Prior to that, About Schmidt has an inertness that rivals its opening scene, which finds Warren on his last day at the office, sitting in his chair with all his work files in boxes and nothing to do, staring up at the clock, waiting for it to strike 5 pm so that he can go home and start the life of retirement that he clearly hasn't been yearning for. I respect that in these early scenes Payne is evoking Warren's listlessness, but the first 45 minutes are little more than a redundant prologue, with scene after scene establishing a depression and lack of purpose that are made immediately apparent within the first 10 minutes.
After all this wheel spinning, when Warren finally hits the road, you'd expect him to be challenged by new people, places and experiences, and to learn from them—a common narrative arc—but while Warren does meet new people and endure new experiences, what he learns is minimal. The film's conclusion is downright odd: Warren delivers a toast at his daughter's wedding that's entirely insincere except in its intent to make his daughter happy, then he spells out the insincerity of his toast via voiceover narration (as if it wasn't obvious already) in which he concludes, self-pityingly but accurately, that he hasn't made much of a mark on the world, or even on his family. On the one hand, I respect the hell out of Payne for resisting the Hollywood trend in which a character that has been carefully established as emotionally corrupt is suddenly presented as sincere in order to create a false happy ending. But on the other hand About Schmidt's conclusion seems to falsely imply emotional catharsis just the same. I can't tell if Payne is punishing Warren or celebrating him.
EH: Yeah, it's a weirdly unsatisfying movie. In theory, I love the idea of a film that, as you say, defies Hollywood conventions to focus on a curmudgeonly character who, for once, doesn't change and doesn't learn anything on his voyage of self-discovery. In practice, I just don't think it works at all. And it doesn't work because Payne doesn't seem to know quite how he feels about Warren, or how he wants us to feel. Warren is a very sad character, and I'd feel nothing but sympathy for him if he wasn't also such a miserable bastard. Warren's retirement dinner, towards the beginning of the film, suggests that Warren has lived for his job and not much else: he's terrified of retiring because working is all he's ever known, and he despises the younger men who are replacing him. At the dinner, Payne mockingly cuts from a photo of a cow, its eye turned towards the camera in terror and confusion, to a posed photo of Warren, staring glossy-eyed into the camera, his terror a little better disguised but no less present. Later in the film, while driving around the country in his RV, Warren passes a trailer carrying cows and comes face to face with one of them, staring it down before continuing his pointless, un-illuminating odyssey. It's as though Payne is implying that Warren is just a big dumb animal, mechanically going through the motions of life, plodding stupidly towards death without resisting, like a cow headed to the slaughterhouse.
Indeed, Payne often seems to be ridiculing Warren for his ignorance and obliviousness, particularly in the letters that Warren writes to an African boy named Ndugu, who he has "fostered" through one of those ubiquitous TV commercials showing heartstring-tugging pictures of starving African children. Warren's letters to Ndugu are an outlet for all of the things that the normally repressed Warren can't or doesn't say aloud, and they also provide a justification for the film's voiceover, on which Warren reads from these letters. His first letter to Ndugu starts out innocuously enough, but it soon becomes a tirade, a torrent of negativity about Warren's wife, his daughter's "not up to snuff" fiancé, his forced retirement and the man who's replacing him at work. Warren has obviously been suppressing these feelings for a long time, and this letter, however inappropriate the venue, provides an opportunity for him to let it all come pouring out at last. Payne is presenting a portrait of a deeply unhappy man, but he also seems to find Warren a pathetically comical figure, a clown who doesn't know he is one. The most telling details in that respect are the shot of Warren sitting down to pee—an emasculating act that shows just how cowed he is by his wife's dominance of him—and the way he closes the letter by telling Ndugu to "go cash that check and get something to eat."
Several times, Warren's letters suggest that he thinks the African boy is directly getting these checks and depositing them into his bank account or something. Payne is rather savagely mocking Warren's distinctly American class blindness, his inability to comprehend what it means to live in real poverty, to really feel starvation. Warren seems to think that Ndugu's situation is just a little worse than his own, and he fills his letters to the boy with all his petty complaints about his middle class misery. And yet, the ending seems to suggest that Warren's charity towards Ndugu is his saving grace and the source of the limited sense of uplift that rather suddenly infuses the otherwise downbeat conclusion. After the scene you mention at the wedding, when Warren returns home and the voiceover reiterates how worthless he feels, Warren receives a letter from a missionary who has been working with Ndugu. This letter tells him how much his help has meant to Ndugu and tells him that the boy—who can't read and thus hasn't read Warren's rants, at least not directly—hopes that Warren is happy. Warren sobs hysterically, and the movie ends. It's a puzzling ending, because as you say, what are we supposed to feel here? It's not complex or ambiguous so much as muddled. Payne has spent much of the movie portraying Warren as stubborn, clueless, pathetic, nasty and close-minded. So what does Warren feel as he cries during that final shot? Regret? Depression? Redemption? Payne seems to want to have it both ways, delivering a conclusion that could be read as either a continuation of Warren's unceasing misery and suffering, or a belated Hollywood-style moment of redemption as the character realizes that he has had a positive impact on somebody, at least.
JB: That's exactly how I feel. This movie leaves too many half-developed themes dangling. At first it seems like Warren will grapple with feelings of irrelevance after retirement. Then it seems like Warren will struggle with being a stranger to his own wife. Then it seems as if Warren will audit his life and find purpose. But none of that really happens. Not in any emotionally convincing way, at least.
The way that Payne endears us to Warren isn't through any developments in his character. It's by surrounding him with loonies, such as Kathy Bates' Roberta, a hippie-type and sexual obsessive. Roberta's two marriages broke up, she says, because she wasn't sexually satisfied. That's why she's confident that Russell's marriage to Warren's daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) will work, because their sexual chemistry is "positively white hot." Roberta also announces that she had her first orgasm at 6 and breast-fed her son until he was almost 5, and when it comes time to share a hot tub with Warren, she of course goes in naked. Her antics, and those of her extended family, distract us from all of Warren's problems, because over the second half of the film Warren becomes a captive audience, raising an eyebrow here and grimacing there in perfunctory reverse shots but revealing very little.
Is there humor in this? To a point. It's funny that Russell's bedroom still has copies of Encyclopedia Brown adventures on the shelf next to ribbons celebrating his "participation." It's funny, too, that Russell is tied up in a pyramid scheme and works at what must be the last waterbed store in the country—pyramid schemes and waterbeds are inherently funny. But there's a desperation to this humor that I find creatively uninspired. Payne keeps piling on absurdity after absurdity, many of them articulated by Roberta in lengthy monologues as if she's checking off a list. Of all of Payne's films, this is the one that feels farthest from reality, not because it's the most cartoonish (that would be Citizen Ruth by a mile), and not because it fails to show the world as we experience it (because often it does), but because it fails to give us a distinct emotional center to which we can relate.
EH: In addition, Payne is so busy subverting expectations—refusing to deliver on any of the themes or Hollywood conventions that he teases and then drops—that he never settles on what the film is actually about or what Warren's story is meant to mean. So much of About Schmidt is poised between mockery and sentimentality, and the mix is really queasy. Payne never really explicitly shows us anything that would contradict Warren's disgusted, judgmental view of Randall, Roberta and the rest of them, but really their worst crime is being a little crude, a little silly, a little, well, lower-class. Warren, as a representative of the white collar middle class, spends most of the movie sneering at the mulletted Randall and the oversexed Roberta, and if Payne thinks Warren's contempt is misplaced, he doesn't give much sign of it. For a time, late in the film, it seems like Warren might soften a bit, but then he delivers that insincere wedding speech—during which Payne inserts a gratuitous and especially ugly closeup of Randall's all-but-drooling, drug burnout brother while Warren disingenuously claims that he seems like "a thoughtful young man"—and goes home without having eased up on his contempt in the least.
It's easy to imagine another, more conventional Hollywood movie in which Warren is eventually worn down by the friendliness of his daughter's new in-laws, or maybe even develops an opposites-attract romance with the obviously interested Roberta. And while I'm glad the film didn't actually head in that direction, as it briefly seems like it might before the wedding, Payne seems all too content to define the movie by the paths he deliberately chooses not to take rather than the ones he does. The result is a film that's all about negativity: both the blistering hatefulness of Warren and the cynical manipulation of Payne.
It's striking, then, to compare About Schmidt with Payne's next movie, Sideways, which is not without its own measure of negativity and mockery, but is certainly not lacking in a strong emotional center. Sideways, though based on a novel by Rex Pickett, is obviously a very personal film for Payne—during About Schmidt, Warren's RV drives past a movie marquee that announces the name of the director's next film, which suggests that Payne was already thinking about adapting the novel. The evidence is onscreen, too. Although Payne is hardly uncritical of his lead character, the snobby wine connoisseur and failing writer Miles (Paul Giamatti), there's an affection and warmness in this movie that's never felt in relation to Warren or any of the other characters in About Schmidt. It makes Sideways at least a much more palatable movie, in that it's not as viscerally and unrelentingly off-putting, but in the end I find myself almost as annoyed by this film's tinkly-jazz wine tour of infidelity, miserablism, and solipsism as I was by About Schmidt's much more direct expressions of bile.
JB: Yeah, when I revisited Sideways for this discussion, seeing it for the first time since its theatrical release, I found that it was more rewarding than I'd remembered it and also more disappointing. I'm not sure what that means—perhaps only that I have a poor memory. Sideways is a different kind of Payne film, much more hopeful and sentimental than Payne's other pictures, followed by The Descendants, but it isn't without bile and bite. Giamatti's Miles might not be a loser in the class of Dern's Ruth, but over the first 15 minutes of the movie the deck is stacked against him in all sorts of ways. First, Miles wakes up late and then lies about the reason for his delay; then he says he's heading out the door before taking his sweet time getting ready; then he says "croissant" with the kind of emphatic French pronunciation that's usually the realm of Alex Trebek; then he lies about nonexistent traffic; then he establishes himself as a, yep, condescending wine snob; and then, to top it all off, he steals money from his own mother. And yet, dammit, we like him almost instantly.
Some of that is a credit to Miles himself, who makes it clear from the beginning that he's genuinely concerned with showing his buddy, Thomas Haden Church's Jack, a good time. Some of that is attributable to the juxtaposition of Miles' faults (wine snobbery and other fairly innocent pretensions) with those of Jack (a sex-crazed philanderer desperate to bury his bone in the first available hole, even though he has a beautiful woman waiting to marry him). Most of it, though, is a tribute to Giamatti. Although Election's plucky Tracy Flick is difficult to ignore, Sideways' Miles has to be the richest character in Payne's filmography, and Giamatti is the perfect actor to tap into his loneliness, bitterness, anger, intelligence and sensitivity. So much of it is just the look: Giamatti is overweight and balding, with an English major's beard. In one early shot, the camera captures Miles and Jack from behind as they drive into Santa Barbara County in Miles' convertible, Miles' bald spot sitting amidst curls of brown hair like an egg in a nest, contrasted with Jack's longer hair waving in the breeze. It's not often you can convey character with the back of someone's head, but Payne does that.
Giamatti was by no means a household name when Sideways came out (heck, he might not be a household name now), but he was the right guy for the part, and that's something that Payne takes very seriously. In that recent Fresh Air interview, Payne said, "Casting is the most important part of all components of cinema. It's the first among equals. The cast is the primary possessor and expresser of tone.…It's the single most important element of the film that should never be compromised." We can debate whether that's true, but I think it's interesting that Payne said it and has a track record that pretty much backs it up; he may have cast A-listers like Nicholson and Clooney, but he didn't use them in the ways that made them A-listers in the first place. Anyway, regardless of the importance of casting to cinema as a whole, there's no doubt that it's of paramount importance within Payne's filmography and that the casting of Giamatti as Miles is the pinnacle of Payne's efforts in that regard.
EH: The acting is definitely the signal bright spot of Sideways, not only Giamatti's self-pitying Miles and Church's unrepentant pussyhound Jack, but also Virginia Madsen's radiant Maya. Madsen's performance is fantastic: her Maya is soulful, sweet, and intelligent, and coupled with Madsen's beauty, she's basically inviting the audience to fall in love with her at the same time as Miles does. In the film's best scene, Miles and Maya take turns describing to one another what they love about wine, and their words reveal as much about their deepest thoughts and ideas as about their taste in beverages. Miles' ode to his favored Pinot Noir doubles as a self-description: he says that the wine is fragile, that it needs to be nurtured and cared for, that it's a difficult variety to cultivate but that careful, sensitive attention can coax total brilliance out of the fragile grape. This is how Miles sees himself, and Giamatti's passionate delivery of this marvelous speech suggests just how hurt Miles is that no one has yet seen the potential in him, no one has tried to coax out the complexity and nuance that the best winemakers have discovered in Pinot Noir.
Maya responds to this thinly veiled confession with her own deeply personal monologue about her love of wine. As she describes her sensual, intellectual engagement with wine and how it makes her think about time, mortality, organic processes, history and nature, the mood grows hushed and sensual to match her words. Payne bathes her elegantly beautiful face in a soft, gl