The films of Alexander Payne

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(warning: contains spoilers for various Payne films)

Recently I managed to watch the 1996 film ‘Citizen Ruth’, the debut directorial feature of Alexander Payne. The film – about a hapless, drug-riddled young woman who gets caught up in the middle of a ferocious abortion debate when she falls pregnant while in prison – is worthy of discussion on its own. It’s one of the more impressive directorial debuts of recent years, as it expertly skewers the fanatisicm on both sides of the abortion debate (while expressing a level of empathy for both perspectives) and how the wishes and needs of the person at the centre of it and what the fight is all supposedly about can be totally manipulated and ignored.

Personally speaking, on a broader level the film carried even more significance in the context of the career of Alexander Payne, a filmmaker I’ve long admired, as it meant I’d seen his entire body of feature film work to date. It led me to consider what about his films it is that so appeals to me and how highly I rate him.

On a basic level a great appealing factor of Payne’s films is how entertaining and compelling they are. Even when decent people like the central character of Jim McAllister in the 1999 film‘Election’ (his best film imo) go through various humiliations and indignities, Payne manages to keep the film bright and bouncy.

But a more specific reason that Payne is such a standout filmmaker is that (in an area that is a general weakness of modern filmmaking) is his ability to analyse with exceptional skill and precision the forces that govern modern society and the types of people that populate it. Whereas most modern films feel generic and could’ve been made decades previously without any significant change, a Payne film feels as if it’s essential to the time and place it’s set in.

Payne’s films are filled with memorable characters that stay in the memory due to how sharply they’re depicted. A constant theme amongst such key characters is that by the definition of society they seem to have obtained a level of success, but in truth they are defined by unfulfilled desires and angst.

The character of McAllister in ‘Election’ is a great example of this. In the opening scenes we see someone who appears to have reached a level of contentment with his life as a decent, well-meaning 30-something person who is in a solid marriage and is respected in his role as a high school teacher. But as the film gradually reveals we see the deep disenchantment he has with his life (something he himself only semi-consciously realises). The destruction of his personal and professional life through delusional attempts at affairs and sabotaging student elections seems plausible because of the convincing psychological underpinning Payne puts into the character.

Then there’s Warren Schmidt in 2002’s ‘About Schmidt’. We are introduced to him at his retirement dinner which in theory should be a celebration of his life and career – a long, prosperous and stable work career for the one company, a long-term stable marriage and the raising of bright and intelligent daughter. It appears at first glance Schmidt has attained all the requirements for what is defined as modern-day ‘success’.

And yet by the conclusion of this film his life has been exposed as a sham. We see that he’s been a complacent, dull personality whose relationship with his wife, daughter and close friend are empty and hollow. His work career was generic so that he was instantly and easily replaced. His realisation of all this by the film’s conclusion and how pointless his life has been is one of the most moving finales of recent years.

McAllister and Schmidt are both narrators in their respective films and it’s fascinating how Payne uses this aspect. While they provide information and personal perspectives, the significance of their narration isn’t the insight they provide, but the lack of insight they provide, revealing how clueless they are about themselves and their driving forces.

Payne’s work isn’t flawless. Sometimes his idiosyncratic style can cross the line from precise social analysis, observation and satire into caricature and patronising viewpoints – certainly these aspects were present at times in ‘About Schmidt’ and ‘Sideways’. Also his most recent film Sideways was his weakest film to date imo. While still a fine film filled with typically entertaining passages and well-written characters, it seemed to lack the sharpness of his best work. Particularly so in the lead character of Miles – full of self-pity and not much else – who was probably the least-interesting major character in a Payne film to date.

But the greatest frustration about Payne’s career isn’t the flaws in his work (which are relatively minor) but his lack of output recently. After the financial and critical success of Sideways in 2004, one would’ve assumed Payne had the clout to deliver more films on his own terms. But, such is the state of modern filmmaking the past 7 years has seen no films from him (with the exception of a delightful short he contributed to the 2006 anthology film ‘Paris, Je t’aime’). Instead apart from a stalled film project there have been divergences into producing of films and TV series and even a script (which he disowned) for an Adam Sandler film.  Perhaps some of this has been what he’s wanted to do and satisfying to him, but it seems to be a major waste of his talents.

The good news is that he has finally got around to shooting a new film – ‘The Descendents’ starring George Clooney – which is due for release later this year. As someone who thinks that no other director has produced better work in the past 15 years, this will be my most anticipated film of 2011.

9 responses »

  1. I’ve only seen Schmidt and Sideways, and I thought both of them very pretty unlikable films. The “caricature and patronising viewpoints” – which is a good way to describe it – seem so overwhelming in both films that I actually felt a little angry about them.

    Actually, I see that I made this comment already in this thread. I still feel the same way, and I’m hoping that The Descendents turns out to be a little more empathetic than Payne’s last two films.

  2. Election and Sideways are too of my favorite films of the last fifteen years. Didn’t care much for About Schmidt, but I did like Citizen Ruth a lot.

  3. I’ve loved all of Payne’s directorial efforts excluding About Schmidt. Election is right up there with the best films of the last twenty years.

    and even a script (which he disowned) for an Adam Sandler film.

    To be fair: Payne and Taylor worked on the film when it was a Will Smith/Nicholas Cage vehicle (granted, that’s not a massive improvement) and much of their material was lost when Sandler and his cronies got their mitts on it.

    I can’t explain Jurassic Park 3, however.

  4. Interesting how ‘About Schmidt’ is generally disliked here (Joe Webb said he loathed it) – I think Nick was the only other person who appears to have liked it (haven’t read filmman’s opinion as yet).

    As an aside, I checked back on an early post I did here on About Schmidt and noticed I wrote it over 5 years ago! Time flies when you’re having fun!

  5. About Schmidt was pretty much worthless. You’d have to pay me a decent chunk of change to re-watch that piece of shit. Election was solid, but not great. Sideways was good, but the ending made me cringe. Oooooooo, so clever.

  6. After seeing ‘Nebraska’, I thought I’d give my rating from best to least of Payne’s feature films:

    Election A-
    About Schmidt A-
    Citizen Ruth B+
    Nebraska B
    Sideways B-
    The Descendants C

  7. The least of his films rate a ‘C’? And there’s only one? That’s not bad at all. I rather liked The Descendants quite a bit, and quite a bit more than About Schmidt, so he’s doing pretty damn well, it would seem.

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