There’s homage, and then there’s the new poster for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which couldn’t be more evocative of David Lynch’s Eraserhead if it featured a lizard-baby’s scissor-stabbed organs. It’s supremely interesting that the folks behind Nebraska turned to the world of Lynch for inspiration, since few would think to connect the surrealist auteur to Payne’s deadpan Americana. But maybe there is something here, beyond these one-sheets’ high-contrast black-and-white, and beyond the shocks of hair that respectively define Jack Nance and Bruce Dern’s characters, that link the filmmakers’ works. Though more darkly and elliptically inclined, Lynch is as much a surveyor of Anytown, USA as Payne will ever be, and the latter has offered his share of bluntly ironic, borderline-Lynchian character quirks. What’s most interesting here is the implication that Nebraska, like Eraserhead, is, on some level, a nightmare.
About Schmidt (#1–10 of 4)
The men in Alexander Payne’s movies are on a constant journey. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson’s Warren experiences late-life enlightenment when he travels cross-country to his daughter’s wedding. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church’s characters experience an entire midlife crisis as they explore central California’s wine country. Most recently, George Clooney’s Matt King traveled the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to reconnect with his daughters and reconcile with his seriously injured wife in The Descendants. (You have to go back to Payne’s first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, to find female protagonists who were also seen at difficult crossroads.) In the process, Payne has become one of American cinema’s most respected chroniclers of male discontent and awakening. If his latest, Nebraska, doesn’t alter the formula, it also does so on a more refreshingly modest scale than that of The Descendants.
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?
More than any actor of his generation, except maybe his buddy Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson has become not just an actor but a brand. Whether sitting courtside at Lakers games, literally talking out of his ass during a Golden Globe acceptance speech, or smirking at us from the silver screen, Jack is always Jack. While some may consider this an acting weakness, I disagree. Jack may always be “playing Jack,” but he scores a multitude of symphonies with that particular note. Here are five performance pieces from one of Noo Joisey’s favorite sons.
1. The Last Detail (1973). The story goes that Columbia Pictures passed on M*A*S*H because “people don’t say ’fuck’ in movies from Columbia Pictures.” The Last Detail is a Columbia Picture, and as befitting the naval occupation of its main characters, every other word is some variation of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!” screams “Bad Ass” Buddusky. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol!” Clearly, a lot had changed in the three years since Altman’s masterpiece. Scored, like “M*A*S*H, by Johnny Mandel, The Last Detail is an antiestablishment piece that uses the military as its object of rebellion. But Detail—written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby—is a smaller movie, and its ending is unrepentantly angry and bitter.
Like his fellow sailor Mule (Otis Young), Buddusky is a Navy lifer; both are dissatisfied with the Navy, but only Buddusky speaks his mind about how ass-backwards he finds his superior officer’s commands. Both are thrown together on the titular assignment: bringing 18-year old kleptomaniac Meadows (Randy Quaid) back to the brig so he can serve an eight year sentence for robbery. Bad Ass and Mule think the sentence, for robbing the favorite charity of a high ranking official’s wife, is overly harsh, and decide to show the young man a good time before he sacrifices his youth to the prison system. The journey is filled with prostitutes, drinking, swearing, fighting, betrayal of trust and more honesty than most contemporary movies could muster in a single frame.