Compared to the misanthropic roundelays that made his reputation back in the 1990s and early aughts, Dirty Weekend, the latest film from Neil LaBute, finds this generally prickly provocateur in a relatively lighthearted mood. Certainly, neither of the two main characters, Les (Matthew Broderick) and Natalie (Alice Eve), do anything extravagantly nasty to each other in the way Aaron Eckhart’s vengefully misogynist business executive in In the Company of Men or Rachel Weisz’s exploitive artist in The Shape of Things behave toward ostensible friends and love interests. Which isn’t to say this is exactly a departure for LaBute. As ever, he’s fascinated with the ways people lie to each other and to themselves, and this time he trains his eye on a prudish man who, we gradually discover, is on a mission to discover what exactly happened one drunken night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a business trip months ago.
Matthew Broderick (#1–10 of 3)
One way to recognize first-rate playwrights is to seek moments of surprising inspiration in their more unambitious plays. An example: On stage is a room full of theater celebrities, sobbing over their stalling careers. A starry-eyed wannabe behind them grabs the nearest cape and passionately renders the act-one finale of Wicked. This image, at once surrealist and satirical, speaks volumes of the contemporary Broadway theater’s distance from its noble legacy and the infuriating but optimistic ignorance of the generation now awash on its shores.
The rest of Terrence McNally’s two-and-a-half-hour It’s Only a Play, now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, consists mostly of jokes and comic bits poking fun at the contemporary theater and the personalities that occupy it. The setting, a lavish Manhattan condo decked by designer Scott Pask in silver and gold, is an unsentimental reminder that Broadway theater is a plaything for the rich, and this loving but cynical tone governs the evening.
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?