[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.