The men in Alexander Payne’s movies are on a constant journey. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson’s Warren experiences late-life enlightenment when he travels cross-country to his daughter’s wedding. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church’s characters experience an entire midlife crisis as they explore central California’s wine country. Most recently, George Clooney’s Matt King traveled the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to reconnect with his daughters and reconcile with his seriously injured wife in The Descendants. (You have to go back to Payne’s first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, to find female protagonists who were also seen at difficult crossroads.) In the process, Payne has become one of American cinema’s most respected chroniclers of male discontent and awakening. If his latest, Nebraska, doesn’t alter the formula, it also does so on a more refreshingly modest scale than that of The Descendants.
Citizen Ruth (#1–10 of 3)
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?
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.