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Paris Je Taime (#110 of 3)

The Conversations: Alexander Payne

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The Conversations: Alexander Payne
The Conversations: Alexander Payne

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?

Poster Lab: New Year’s Eve

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Poster Lab: <em>New Year’s Eve</em>
Poster Lab: <em>New Year’s Eve</em>

Call off the dogs. The absolute worst poster of 2011 has been found. Just as surely as Adam Sandler regards viewers as mindless, indiscriminate subway rats, so, too, do the sickeningly shallow media makers pushing Garry Marshall’s “holiday” series, the McDonald’s-drive-thru answer to the sweetly experimental Je t’aime films. A touch of the bubbly meets a touch of evil in the latest one-sheet for New Year’s Eve, a tacky A-List nightmare that—can you believe it?!—boasts even more glossy celebrities than its saccharine predecessor, Valentine’s Day. These movies are insulting even in their conceptual stages, when it’s decreed that a mess of famous faces playing characters who can’t possibly see ample development is as valuable as a well-considered tale of folks with actual dimension. But the slap in the face is entirely unrestrained and out in the open with the New Year’s Eve poster, a ridiculous collage that any of us could have made on our lunch breaks if we had enough unused holiday gift wrap and back issues of Us Weekly.

Whereas the leading Valentine’s Day poster at least had an appropriate shape with which to frame its glitterati, this New Year’s Eve image, unable to squeeze the cast into a champagne-flute silhouette, opts for the laziest, most laughable grid in memory and sets it against a Party-City New York backdrop that’s cloying and contrived right down to the pixie-dust fireworks. It’s hard to think of a recent advertisement for anything that’s so transparently offensive, as from the exaggerated use of AmEx gold to the shameless showcasing of the shiny, happy 1 percent, it’s soulless commercialism at its most flagrantly manipulative.

New York Film Festival 2011: The Descendants

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>The Descendants</em>
New York Film Festival 2011: <em>The Descendants</em>

Part Coen brothers and part James L. Brooks, Alexander Payne makes comedies about serious stuff like abortion and midlife crises. His characters may verge on caricature and his scripts on contrivance, but nuanced acting and lingering close-ups make their emotions feel vividly, even painfully real.

His best film since Election, aside from the segment he directed for Paris Je T’aime, The Descendants is based on a novel written by a young woman, Kaui Hart Hemmings, which may explain why the two girls in the story feel so well-rounded. But then, Payne has always gravitated toward interestingly prickly female characters, from the glue-sniffing title character of Citizen Ruth to Election’s endlessly ambitious Tracy Flick and the impetuous biker played by Sandra Oh in Sideways.

The main women in this story are Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and the couple’s two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), both of whom are acting out like crazy as the story begins. Elizabeth never speaks a word (we see her first as a gigantic face filling the screen with delight as she rides in a speeding motorboat, then as a comatose husk of a body in a hospital bed), but we get a pretty good sense of her through the things other people say about her—and to her as she lies there, a pale slate for other people to scrawl their emotions on.