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, glowing orange light, as she leans forward towards Miles, her voice purring as she pours out this poetic appreciation of the profundity that she finds in wine. This is a very powerful acting showcase, and a wonderful character moment. It’s also an invitation to intimacy that the hapless, pathetic Miles clumsily allows to pass him by, staggering instead into awkwardness, trying to follow up her soul-baring eloquence with banal chit-chat. It’s painfully awkward to see him flounder this moment, and Payne’s mastery of tones here, shifting smoothly from sensuality and self-revelation to a comedy of humiliation, demonstrates his skill with juggling contradictory moods. I think this whole sequence represents one of the high points of Payne’s filmography, so I can see why you’d say that the film is, at least at moments like this, rewarding. But you’re also right that it’s disappointing, because for every scene like that gorgeous nighttime conversation, there’s another like the scene where Miles sneaks into the house of one of Jack’s conquests to steal back the wallet that his friend left behind. This scene has to be a nadir for Payne, ridiculing a lower-class couple for being fat, stupid, sexually dysfunctional (when Miles sneaks into the couple’s room, they’re having sex while the husband calls his wife a slut for sleeping with Jack earlier), messy and Republican. Payne’s camera pans around the bedroom while Miles looks for Jack’s wallet: the shot takes in the couple fucking enthusiastically on the bed, the garbage and dirty clothes strewn everywhere, and the TV which just happens to be showing George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, as though drawing a silent connection between fat rural people living in a messy, squalid home, having violent and angry sex, and the Republican politics of the time. The scene ends with the husband running naked into the street, chasing Miles, crashing into Jack and Miles’ car with his penis pressed up against the window. It’s just a horrible, horrible scene.
JB: Yeah, that scene provides comedy from the About Schmidt model; it’s empty and unproductive. The set-up to the scene is fine: Jack slums it with an overweight waitress he knows to be married and ends up naked in the street without his phone or wallet after the husband catches him in the act. In a movie with one eye on addiction, it’s Jack’s proverbial rock bottom, the equivalent of the scene in which the alcohol-abusing Miles loses it and drinks from the spit basin at the winery. Thus, there’s even some justification for Miles being the one to sneak into the house to retrieve Jack’s things: it’s an act of penance, a symbol of his devotion to his friend, evidence that underneath the exterior pain and anger, he’s a good person. But all of that set-up dissolves into a cheap bad-naked joke reminiscent of Roberta stripping down to get into the hot tub. It’s a cheap gag, and maybe it provides a reflexive laugh, but it reduces the sincerity of everything before it, making Payne a bit like Miles: doubling back to engage in idle chit-chat as if uncomfortable to stay in the moment. Even if Payne is just being faithful to Pickett’s novel in that scene—and I haven’t read it, so I don’t know—he’s not being faithful to his own established tone, and that’s what makes it so deflating.
I have a similar problem, by the way, with the scene at the winery where Miles snaps and chugs from the spit basin. It’s not that I can’t imagine someone doing that, because under the spell of alcohol people do all sorts of crazy things. It’s also not impossible for me to imagine Miles doing that, because we see him self-destruct in his drink-and-dial moment at the restaurant. But the way it plays out doesn’t ring true, because in this moment Miles is still in pursuit of drunkenness, not feeling its effects—and furthermore it suggests that Miles’ previous strict adherence to winery etiquette is fraudulent camouflage, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Miles loves everything about wine culture; it’s the one thing that gives him self-confidence. So, sure, like Jack, we’re watching Miles hit rock bottom, but it’s highly unlikely that Miles’ rock bottom would look anything like that, and so the scene comes off like a cheap shock gag. It’s as if Payne feels Miles needs to be brought down from his ivory tower, to be royally embarrassed for thinking himself superior to those around him, and understandably so. Indeed, Miles is a snob. Indeed, he can be condescending. And there’s that word again. While I generally feel the “condescending” tag is misapplied to Payne, I have to admit that it’s odd to see him punishing a character for a superiority complex.
EH: Yeah, Payne strikes a weird tone with respect to Miles, because I think it’s clear that he identifies with Miles even as he runs the character through the wringer and invites the audience to laugh at Miles’ pretensions, as in the scene where Miles becomes apoplectic over the idea that someone might order—gasp!—Merlot at dinner. Miles’ snobbery is an easy target, and sometimes Payne, who generally respects the passion of Miles and Maya for wines, can’t resist taking some fake-populist cheap shots at their rarified interests.
What’s funny is that Payne is, in many ways, as judgmental as Miles is, which is especially obvious when you look at his treatment of nudity in About Schmidt and Sideways. I seem to remember, back when the former movie first came out, that Kathy Bates got a lot of attention for her nude scene, with a lot of people praising Payne for having someone other than a hot young actress appearing naked on screen. True, it’s a rarity in Hollywood cinema for an older actress to show her body, and even male nudity is uncommon; most nudity in Hollywood is just blatant titillation aimed at young male audiences. But far from being a validation of sexuality after youth’s end, Payne treats Roberta’s nudity as a joke; Warren is made deeply uncomfortable by it, and the implication is that the audience should to some extent share in that discomfort, turned off by her aged, somewhat overweight naked body. Sideways displays the same attitude in the scene where Miles steals the wallet back: the humor, such as it is, is meant to arise from seeing unattractive people naked. It’s seamy spectacle. Payne contrasts such unpleasantness against all the montages where Payne shows the two couples talking and laughing, drinking wine, having dinner, admiring beautiful sunsets while sitting in the grass, and all the while this soft, tinkly music drowns out anything they might be saying. There’s a big tonal gap between this kind of sentimental, affectionate moment and the more bitter currents in the film, and the lack of consistency is probably the biggest problem with it.
JB: I’m glad you mentioned those sunsets, because one of the things I admire about Sideways is the organic realism of its natural beauty. Phedon Papamichael is the cinematographer for this film, replacing James Glennon, who was the director of photography for Payne’s first three films, but Sideways maintains the distinct look of a Payne movie. Earlier I said that Payne shows us places that look exactly like we experience them in the real world, and Sideways follows that trend. For example, there are a handful of shots in which Miles and Jack are shown walking down the shoulder of a busy road to or from their cheap motel. These are not beautiful shots by any means; these are the opposite of that. They’re pedestrian, forgive the pun—terrifically pedestrian. We’ve all made walks like that, on roads illuminated by the headlights of passing cars and bright auto dealerships, and few films better capture what that looks like. And just as Payne has a sharp eye for the mundane (see also: the Windmill Inn and the crappy diner where Miles and Jack eat breakfast), he has an eye for the simple beauty of wine country (rows of green and purple grapevines amidst dusty dry hills). Payne’s sunsets don’t have the orgasmic splendor that you’d find in a Terrence Malick film because Payne’s stories don’t live within the magic hour—literally, thematically or emotionally. Put another way, Payne gives us romance without resorting to the amplifications of romantic cinema.
I suppose that leads us to 14e Arrondissement, Payne’s contribution to the collection of vignettes that make up Paris, Je T’Aime. The short stars Margo Martindale as a fanny-pack-wearing postal carrier from Denver who is taking her dream trip to Paris. Or at least that’s the idea. This woman has studied French for two years in preparation for her journey, but no sooner does she arrive than she realizes that she has no one to talk to—no one beyond us, that is, listening to her narrate her vacation in hilariously mangled French. Over the course of the short, we see this woman venture out into France cautiously, falling back on hotel burgers for food, missing her dogs and visiting the graves of famous dead people she knows only through her guidebook. It’s a lonely trip in many ways, but, at times, a genuinely happy one, too. When talking about this short, it’s important to remember the structure of Paris, Je T’Aime, which confines each vignette to a specific neighborhood. And yet with Payne you get the sense that he wouldn’t have set this short at the Eiffel Tower or somewhere along the Seine even if he’d had the chance. Payne’s milieu is the comparatively average, and here that applies not only to the portions of Paris we see but also to the main character, who finds her bittersweet moment of emotional connection with the city not at one of its most famous landmarks but at a fairly typical park, full of locals enjoying a summer afternoon.
EH: This short is Payne in microcosm: emotionally resonant, concerned with the mundane, and with at least a touch of belittling condescension. Here, at least, the worst of the mocking tone is limited to a single shot, when Payne cuts to an image of a half-eaten, greasy burger while the narrator expresses her disappointment that French food hasn’t lived up to her expectations. That little jab at American cultural blindness aside, the short’s tone is mostly empathetic, providing a portrait of a lonely, sheltered woman who’s somewhat desperately trying to have fun far from home. It helps that Payne’s contribution is one of the best in this uneven, overstuffed portmanteau film, which occasionally interrupts its parade of mediocrity for scattered gems like Olivier Assayas’ touching miniature, which feels like a fragmentary outtake from Irma Vep. Payne was given the collection’s closing slot, though a pointless montage of all the shorts unfortunately follows his film’s elegiac conclusion, which otherwise builds a near-perfect mood in its final moments.
14e Arrondissement ends with the protagonist in a Parisian park, looking around her in a series of shots that in turn encompass kids playing, a young couple embracing, and an older couple sitting on a park bench. In one glance, she sees an entire life cycle arranged in an arc around her. In this moment, she must acutely feel her age and everything she’s missing out on, particularly love and companionship. And yet the film’s ending isn’t as downbeat as that makes it sound. The mood of the finale is actually warm and bittersweet, infused with sadness but also a sense of appreciation for the quiet beauty of everyday life. That particular mix of feelings is arguably the distinctive mark of a Payne film.
That emotional cocktail certainly describes Payne’s latest film, The Descendants, his first feature in seven years. Despite the long gap between films, Payne’s aesthetic and sensibility haven’t changed much between Sideways and The Descendants. The film is about Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer whose wife goes into a coma after a waterskiing accident, at which point Matt learns—from his teenage daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley)—that his wife had been cheating on him. Matt confronts multiple ugly truths at once, dealing with the impending death of his wife as well as the realization that his marriage, which had long been stale and uncommunicative, was in even worse trouble than he’d thought. As Matt tries to track down the man with whom his wife had been having an affair—real estate salesman Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard)—he’s also trying to get closer to his daughters, the troubled Alex and the goofy, weird Scottie (Amara Miller), broker a land deal that would make him and his many cousins incredibly rich, and come to terms with how his own workaholic distantness drove his wife away.
Matt is, in many respects, not a typical Payne protagonist, because he’s not as miserably pathetic as Miles or Ruth or Warren or Jim McAllister. Clooney had wanted a part in Sideways, but Payne denied him, understanding that no one would buy Clooney, one of modern Hollywood’s true movie stars in the classical sense, as a schlubby loser. Clooney’s Matt radiates the star’s square-jawed charm and self-assurance, so the one way in which he’s like other Payne protagonists is that he must deal with a barrage of confidence-shaking challenges to life as he understands it. In this respect, Clooney is perfect for the role, and he delivers a marvelously subtle performance as a man who had taken a lot of things for granted and is now confronted with the tragic consequences of his complacency.
JB: Yeah, it’s certainly a perfect Clooney role, even if Clooney doesn’t have what it takes to be a prototypical Payne lead. Or, perhaps more accurately, Clooney has too much to be a prototypical Payne lead. I recently read that after Clooney went through the initial wardrobe fittings for Matt, which include those typical untucked Hawaiian shirts and other clothes that look too big on him, the star joked that Payne was doing irreparable harm to his People Sexiest Man Alive image. But that’s an overstatement. Sure, Clooney is unshaven in The Descendants, and his hair is longer and grayer than usual, and Matt’s elder beach-bum attire wouldn’t fit within one of Steven Soderbergh’s fitted-and-pressed Ocean’s movies, but he’s still so-damn-handsome-it-hurts George Clooney, a guy who could roll out of bed on the tail end of the flu and still look better than the other 99 percent. (This isn’t Charlize Theron hiding under enough makeup and added weight to become totally unrecognizable in Monster, in other words.)
In fact, Clooney’s sex appeal, much of which is attributable to that deep voice and singular penetrating gaze (no one gives better eye contact than Clooney), is so uncontainable that some critics and casual moviegoers have suggested that he’s miscast, a common complaint being, “What woman would ever cheat on George Clooney?” While I find that specific complaint simpleminded—people cheat for all sorts of reasons beyond the physical, and even Matt doesn’t struggle to connect his wife’s adultery to the emotional distance and friction between them—the suggestions that Clooney isn’t right for a role that in so many ways is tailor-made for his abilities perhaps reveals that Payne is best suited to make stories about the truly unexceptional.
Having said that, let me make it clear that, like you, I think this is a terrific Clooney role, not just because Matt allows Clooney to be reserved and inward, which plays to the actor’s strengths, but also because Clooney fits into Payne’s larger mission within The Descendants, which is to subvert our expectations. That effort begins not with Clooney, actually, but with the film’s location, Honolulu, Hawaii, which Payne demystifies in the film’s initial sequence detailing that Hawaii’s proverbial “island paradise” isn’t immune to typical mainland problems, from bumper-to-bumper traffic to poverty to, of course, illness. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” Matt says in the opening voiceover narration as he sits in the hospital next to his unresponsive wife—tragedy, heartbreak and familial dysfunction can exist anywhere.
For Payne, the opportunity to bring everyday problems, flaws and absurdities to this exotic location must have been part of the motivation to make this movie. But thankfully The Descendants is more than some “rich white folks in Hawaii are people, too” plea for sympathy for the upper class, just like Citizen Ruth and Election are deeper than their criticisms of the lower and middle classes. The drama that unfolds here is a personal one, independent of its setting, which of course is entirely the point.
EH: For all the emphasis on Hawaii in the opening, the setting does wind up being pretty incidental except as background; this is a story that could take place anywhere, because it’s an emotional story first and foremost. On the other hand, the ultimate irrelevance of the setting is rather uncharacteristic of Payne, whose other films are deeply grounded in surroundings that he knows well. Here, he’s borrowing the setting from novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings, and all the Hawaiian shirts and the soundtrack of rubbery island guitar music feel like window-dressing, whereas the mundane middle America of Election and the wine country tourism of Sideways were much more fully realized. In The Descendants, most of the actual Hawaii material is sectioned off in the subplot about the land owned by Matt’s family, and the deal that he and his many cousins are arranging to sell it off. Whenever Payne dedicates a few scenes to the land deal negotiations, it’s as though he’s detouring into a secondary, almost entirely unconnected story, which gives the film a much more disjointed feel than if Payne had just focused more fully on Matt’s personal narrative. True, the land deal winds up tying into the adultery plot at the very end, when it turns out that Brian Speer is also connected to the deal and stands to benefit from it, but that’s just another unnecessary complication.
The tone at the end of the film suggests that there should be some emotional resonance to Matt’s decision about the land, but it doesn’t really work because his connection to the land has only been described, not seen or really felt. The scene where the family visits the land, and Scottie pouts that she won’t get to go camping there as previous generations had, is probably the closest the film gets to really dealing with the land in an emotional, personal way. Elsewhere, Payne introduces all of Matt’s cousins by name, only for most of them to never appear again, and that’s indicative of the truncated, half-assed feel of all the scenes revolving around the land subplot. The film was based on a novel by Hawaii native Hemmings, and many of these scenes have the feel of vestigial remnants of what must have been a much more substantial thread in the source. I’m left with the impression that Payne had to either deal with this material in much more depth, or cut it out almost entirely, because it sits pretty uneasily in the film as is.
I’m also glad you brought up the voiceover, because it’s one of several problems I have with The Descendants, which boasts many great performances without Payne quite building a great film around them. As I believe we’ve discussed during a previous conversation, I don’t agree with the received wisdom that voiceovers are always detrimental to a film; sometimes they can work quite well. Here, though, as nice as it is to listen to Clooney’s smooth voice, the narration mostly just seems unnecessary, and at worst it resorts to strained metaphors like Matt’s comparison of his family’s fragmentation to an archipelago (because they’re in Hawaii, get it?). The film is at its best when Payne allows the nuanced performances to stand on their own; the voiceover too often is just hammering home feelings and ideas that were already perfectly clear without the extra words.
JB: To be fair, I believe the only true narration is in the beginning of the film. After that, Payne drops it, something he’s never been afraid to do—use voiceover when it suits him, even just for one scene, and then discard it. Still, yeah, the initial narration includes some too perfect analogies, like the archipelago one you mentioned, and at least one random one: Matt says that some of the most successful businessmen in Hawaii dress like beach bums and stuntmen, the latter part being a curious comparison, because how does Matt know what stuntmen dress like, and how do we? (That line is so misplaced it should disqualify The Descendants for Best Screenplay awards.) I think one of the reasons that the voiceover seems omnipresent is because there are a few scenes in which Matt talks to his comatose wife, neatly laying out all his thoughts and emotions, that work much the same way.
I agree with you that the land deal subplot feels incomplete, like something tacked on that’s meant to either justify Matt’s distance from the family or to artificially enhance the complexity of his abilities to do right by his wife’s feelings for Brian Speer, as if it wasn’t complicated enough already. I think what Payne is going for here is the idea that Matt has viewed his family, not just their land, as a possession, an asset, and the experience of losing his wife and reconnecting with his daughters makes him connect emotionally in a way that he hasn’t in a long time. Before the party at which Matt decides not to sell, there’s a sequence in which he throws open the curtains and shutters of this little beach house that’s a de facto museum of family history, and Payne, along with Matt, observes the many old family photos on the wall. The scene suggests a man rediscovering his roots, not just as pedigree but as actual family. And of course Matt’s decision not to sell is an extension of his efforts to let Brian say goodbye to his wife before she dies: he’s trying to do the “right thing.” All the land deal stuff can be explained in that way, but, as you’ve suggested, it isn’t enough to make it feel emotionally connected with the rest of the drama.
Still, it does lead to one of my favorite shots. In the scene in which Matt first learns about Brian’s connection to the land deal, he’s out getting lunch with his daughters and Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause). After hearing the news, Matt returns to their table and sits down, and Payne captures Matt in a closeup profile, sitting against the wall, an overwhelmed expression on his face, with a small Hawaiian band playing in the background behind him. Payne delivers a lot of the film’s emotion through closeups on Clooney, but this shot is a perfect visual articulation of that opening narration in which the complexities of real life slam up against the romantic optimism and cheerfulness of the setting.
EH: Moments like that do work really well, because Payne basically can’t go wrong whenever he simply turns his camera on Clooney’s face and lets the actor’s subtle expressions—you can really see the wheels turning as he struggles to process this latest shock—tell the story. Whatever my problems with Payne and this film, there’s no denying that he’s either a phenomenal director of actors or a master of casting—or both, probably. Clooney’s performance stands out, of course, but I was almost equally impressed by Shailene Woodley, a young actress I’d never seen before who did a fabulous job of conveying Alex’s simmering teenage confusion. Alex is afflicted with a lot of typically teenage contradictions, caught between approaching maturity and a strong instinct for rebellion, and this emotional firestorm is intensified by her anger at her mother and the mingled sympathy and contempt she feels for her father. The scene where she first tells her father about her mother’s infidelity is especially masterful: she’s all but goaded into blurting out the revelation by Matt’s insistence that she put her anger at her mother behind her, and it’s obvious that she can’t decide if she blames her father for this situation or not. There’s a lot of emotional complexity in scenes like this, and throughout the film Woodley, guided by Payne, never fails to do justice to this girl’s navigation of a very adult, confusing situation. In a way, the film is about Matt and Alex simultaneously growing and maturing, the daughter maturing into adulthood a little before her time while the father belatedly catches up to his age.
Payne excels at that kind of emotional turmoil, and he excels at finding the right actors to convey these complex webs of feelings. Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) is a gruff, stern man who’s unyielding in his disapproval for Matt and Alex, and who blames Matt for his daughter’s unhappiness and the accident that put her in a coma. He’s a bracing, often discomfiting presence in the film, and of course he’s unable to see his daughter’s marriage from an even-handed perspective, but his appearances are unfailingly complicated by the fact that many of the accusations he directs towards Matt have at least a ring of truth to them. And then there’s the scene where Scott and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife sit by their daughter’s bedside, saying goodbye, while Matt and Alex eavesdrop on this moment of tenderness and intimacy, witnessing a rare unguarded moment from this usually stony man.
The best example of this kind of emotional reversal or revelation is Alex’s friend Sid, who tags along on what is otherwise a series of private family dramas because Alex insists that she’d feel better with him around. For much of the film, Sid is purely a comic relief character, doing and saying outrageous and almost willfully stupid things that stereotype him as a stoner/slacker idiot. By the midway point of the film, I was getting more than a little sick of him, to be honest, and had him pegged as another example of Payne’s tendency to create paper-thin stereotypes as punching bags for his mean sense of humor. (And Sid is also a literal punching bag for Forster’s Scott, in one of the film’s more uncomfortably unfunny stabs at humor.) Then, as though sensing the annoyance the character was likely to generate, Payne includes a quiet but startling scene that completely flips one’s perception of the character without changing a thing about his personality. It’s a simple late-night conversation between Matt and Sid in which Matt, getting desperate by now, tries to understand his daughter by talking to her best friend. Sid, for once, holds his abrasive humor in check and reveals the hitherto unseen quiet dignity of this character, who has experienced his own share of pain and loss and deals with it in his own irreverent way. As he says, he and Alex don’t actually talk about their problems, but help each other feel better by goofing around and making each other laugh, which helps put the rest of Sid’s behavior in context. It’s a short and simple scene that is nevertheless very necessary, both as a way of deepening this otherwise one-dimensional joke character and as an example of Payne’s penchant for finding catharsis in unexpected places.
JB: The relationship between Sid and Alex isn’t all that different than the one between Matt and his kids, actually. While The Descendants is all about a man confronting, finally, all the problems in his family, there’s so much that still goes unspoken. The hugs between Matt and his kids have a distance to them, for example, even at the end when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom, and although Matt, Alex and Scottie do grow closer over the movie, they bond less out of love for one another than through a shared sense of having been wronged—by the deception of the affair, by Brian Speer’s manipulations and by the waterskiing accident. A lot of what happens in this movie fits in with the stereotypical-because-it’s-true notion, held by many, that it’s OK for family to harm itself but not OK for someone else to harm the family. Thus we see Alex stand up for Matt when Scott is lecturing his son-in-law, and we see Alex become protective of Scottie by urging her younger sister to call out her friend for being a “twat,” and obviously Alex and Matt bond principally by tracking down and then staring down Brian Speer. Matt, Alex and Scottie have a long way to go before they understand one another, but over the course of the movie they do learn how to protect one another.
That’s what I appreciate about Payne films, the way characters can grow without completely figuring everything out, and the way that characters can seem heroic while still being flawed. It’s worth noting, in the context of our condescension debate, that some of Matt’s antics in this film would play like attacks on a no-class lower class if not for Matt’s wealth and good looks—in particular the scene in which Matt lectures his comatose wife at the hospital, noting that relationships are supposed to make life easier and accusing her of always making life harder, up to and including suffering the accident that has her on the edge of death. That scene has a lot of bite to it as-is, but certainly the same tirade would feel a lot darker if, say, delivered by Warren Schmidt to his wife, and perhaps that’s evidence in favor of the idea that Payne is most interested in showing the ugly truths of all his characters, regardless of their social standing or political affiliations, and maybe sometimes it’s Payne’s audience that makes connections to class that just aren’t intended.
EH: I don’t know if that’s quite true, if only because Payne himself always seems so conscious of his characters’ class statuses, whether they’re well-off like Matt or lower-class like many of Payne’s other characters. It’s true that Payne can be harsh towards all his characters, regardless of class, but it’s also true that there are hardly any Payne characters where class isn’t an issue at all. It’s obvious that he thinks about class in relation to his films, so a part of me can’t help but believe it’s no accident that he’s relatively more affectionate and understanding towards the higher class protagonists of Sideways and The Descendants.
Still, The Descendants has more to offer than class commentary, like fantastic performances and a bracing emotional honesty that makes it a great actors’ showcase, if not quite a great movie. It’s narratively incoherent, with a modular structure that makes it seem even more disjointed: the film’s different acts vary wildly in tone. At times, it also verges into shrill melodrama, especially in the scenes towards the end of the film with Brian Speer’s wife, played by the normally likable Judy Greer. It’s a very uneven movie, punctuated with great scenes but not quite hanging together as a whole. That it’s all pulled together for the subtle, ambiguous final shot—Matt and his daughters cuddled up on the sofa, watching TV and eating ice cream, a shot that Payne holds for wordless contemplation for quite a long time—only partially redeems the film’s flaws and messiness.
It’s not surprising that my reaction to The Descendants vacillates between admiration and annoyance; that’s been my reaction to nearly every Payne film. I went into this conversation loving Election while harboring a lot of ambivalence about his oeuvre as a whole, and my opinion hasn’t been changed by this latest work, nor by revisiting his filmography. He’s an interesting and contradictory director, though, a curious blend of the humanist and the cynic; he often just mockingly eviscerates his characters, but he’s also proven himself capable of much more nuanced portraits that reveal the beating, fallible human heart beneath the caricature. That’s Payne at his best: when he sets up a character like Tracy Flick, or Sid in The Descendants, who seems to be little more than a target for his derision, until he peels away the layers and locates the humanity, the sadness, the unexpected complexity of these seemingly simple characters. The moments when he achieves this delicate balancing act are the bright spots in an uneven but undeniably intriguing career.
JB: Yeah, I’m with you: Payne is at his best when he comingles emotions. Sometimes he does so simply by juxtaposing the touching and the tragic, such as that great moment near the end of The Descendants in which Matt rests his hand on his wife’s matted hair, giving her a loving caress, in spite of all the recent heartbreak and disillusionment, but often he does so by literally blending images, such as the scene in Sideways in which he employs a sequence of cross dissolves—a Payne staple—as Miles flirts with Maya, drinks too much, becomes distant and then drunk-dials his ex, in doing so inspiring our sympathy and our disgust in equal measure.
It’s certainly an intriguing career; I’m interested to see whether Payne continues to make more conventional comedic dramas like The Descendants or returns to the comparatively raw and combative tone of his earlier works. Personally, I root for the latter. Cinema needs a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to bite into the averageness of average Americans. And if charges of condescension come with that, so be it. I don’t think these characters need Payne’s protection, and often in supplying it critics can commit the same offense they’re attributing to Payne, judging the characters less on their actions than on their clothing, home decorating and automobiles. Especially in an era in which the Occupy movement has people sharpening their focus on the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, we need a filmmaker like Payne who, The Descendants excluded, makes movies about the other 99 percent.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.