Home  |  Blog   |  Archives  |  Contributors  |  About
Issue 02, Volume 01

An Alexander Payne Retrospective

by Emily Selinger

When Alexander Payne's much-loved film Sideways came out in 2004, I was a freshman in high school. Fourteen-year-old girls were not exactly the key demographic for a black comedy about a depressed middle-aged man. My parents, on the other hand, were Payne's target audience: affluent, intelligent, wine-loving adults. In the years since, I've had time to adopt their appreciation for Payne's unique blend of cynical wit and touching drama. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Payne – an immediate indie darling – had a consistent, steady career. He wrote and directed four feature films in eight years, all of which were met with great critical acclaim. After Sideways, though, he took a seven-year hiatus before releasing his fifth film, The Descendants. In these seven years (almost an eternity in the film industry), Payne fans have had time to question whether he'd return with his same masterful balance of satirical black comedy and compassionate pathos. The answer? Yep, he's still got it.

Watching his five feature films in quick succession last month, I couldn't help but notice an evolution in style and tone. Payne's first film was Citizen Ruth (1996), in which a deadbeat woman trying to get her life together inadvertently falls into the center of the national abortion debate. Both Ruth and Payne's sophomore effort Election, which mocks government, use small-scale political issues to satirize corruption in American politics as a whole. Payne's next three films are stronger and more cohesive, almost forming a trilogy. He carries over his satirical sensibility to what has become his preferred subject matter: stories about lonely, troubled, middle-aged men who are on the verge of a crisis. In About Schmidt (2002), a recently retired and widowed Nebraskan takes a road trip to his daughter's wedding, while writing letters to an African child that he's sponsoring. Sideways follows a divorced, unpublished writer as he takes his soon-to-be married best friend to California wine country for one last hurrah. The Descendants (2011) is about a Hawaiian lawyer who discovers that his comatose wife had been cheating on him. As he attempts to take care of his two daughters and find the adulterer, he struggles to decide whether to sell off land he inherited from Hawaiian royalty.

About Schmidt is the bleakest of these three, thanks to its dismal Midwestern setting and its lonely, bitter protagonist. Sideways – with its subtle romantic tension – contains the more balanced mix of warmth and dark humor that we've come to expect from Payne. For me, The Descendants was more emotional and more cathartic than its four predecessors. Maybe, having recently lost a parent, the film just hit too close to home. Or perhaps Payne is sharpening his edge. That's not to say that his flair for cruel humor is completely absent from the film: a senior citizen punches a stoner teen in the face, the protagonist's ten-year-old daughter sends explicit text messages to a friend. Payne knows how to land comedic moments like these, and he knows how to pack subtler scenes with a heartbreaking blow. Movies that combine comedy and drama are ubiquitous in independent film these days, but Payne isn't just making a "dramedy." His films have a pessimistic streak, and they are too morally ambiguous to be pinned with, for instance, those of Jason Reitman. At the same time, Payne's compassion for his characters distinguishes him from crueler satirists like Noah Baumbach and Charlie Kaufman. I return to Payne's films again and again because he fills the void between good-natured dramedy and harsh satire.

Payne routinely satirizes issues affecting the daily life of modern middle-class Americans, including adultery, professional and personal dissatisfaction, distance in relationships/marriages, and strained parent-child relations. The universality of these problems makes them relatable, while Payne's strong sense of location keeps them specific and nuanced. The first three films are set in Payne's native Nebraska. California wine country features prominently in the story of Sideways, as does Hawaii in The Descendants. Instead of using location as a backdrop, Payne focuses on the way people inhabit these places. His sets are detailed and true to their surroundings: the dull, classically decorated houses of Omaha, the cluttered condos of California, and the airy, hillside houses of Honolulu. Payne creates a world for each film that gives context to the inner struggle of each character.

Payne's knack for dialogue allows for some of his most touching, humorous moments. The dialogue – honest and conversational, never too vague or outrageous – prevents the characters from crossing the line into caricature. Take, for instance, the Pinot Noir monologue in Sideways. Protagonist Miles explains to Maya – his love interest – the reasoning behind his love for Pinot, like any other passionate, verbose wine connoisseur might. Yet, just from a discussion about the temperament of grapes, Payne gives us insight into the complexities of Miles' character, the reasons behind his various failures, and the qualities that make Maya so drawn to him. In The Descendants, Payne again displays his understanding of how to develop characters using dialogue that is natural and specific. Alexandra, the main character Matt's daughter, speaks (and acts) more like a real teenager than the teens I've seen in any other recent film or TV show. Like Alexandra, I know what it's like to be a teenage girl returning from school to a house in which illness has completely transformed the family dynamic. I felt a sense of camaraderie with her as her attitude rapidly alternated between sullen, frustrated, guilty, compassionate, and angry. These emotionally charged confrontations with her father keep her from appearing as a two-dimensional melodramatic, bratty teenager. Payne's comedic one-liners are just as effective, like the oft quoted "I am not drinking any Merlot" line from Sideways. The moments of comedy justify moments of honest emotion, and vice versa – the same balance that exists in our own real life conversations.

Payne's simple, effective visual style completely serves his writing. Quick cuts add to the dry humor, long takes build dramatic tension, and close-ups let us into the minds of the characters. Towards the beginning of About Schmidt, the protagonist's co-workers throw him a retirement party. While one co-worker makes a speech about Warren's success, Payne slowly zooms into a close-up of Warren's expression. In a single moment, we come to understand exactly how ambivalent Warren feels about his life. In the Pinot Noir scene in Sideways, when Maya talks about the life behind wine, Payne gives a full close-up of her from Miles's point of view. Maya looks almost luminous in this shot, and we get the sense that for this moment, she is all that exists in Miles's world. The shot choice supports her monologue, helping us to fall in love with her along with Miles. Payne may not be very visually innovative, but that is not really the point of his films. Storytelling is his strength, and the camera is there simply to help him get his story across in the most effective way.

At their core, Payne's films are character-driven. He is fascinated with his signature character: the pathetic, self-hating, middle-aged man. The films are all first person, staying tightly focused on the protagonist and his world. To achieve this effect, Payne keeps the number of primary characters low. And, in his latest three films, the leading man appears in every single scene. These men are all at a crossroads, reflecting on their past failures. They have moments of selfish, erratic behavior: Warren begging his daughter to break off her engagement, Miles pouring wine all over himself at a tasting, Matt running through Honolulu in boat shoes. Payne treats his characters with sympathy even when they're at their least relatable. He doesn't hide their failures and moments of hysterics, but he never mocks them; instead, he slowly reveals their deeper layers of compassion and bravery. Payne's humanism keeps his characters from falling into the realm of caricature. Tracy Flick in Election, for instance, is annoying, exaggerated, and easy to hate. Yet, when she loses the election, Payne portrays her as a disappointed, hurt kid, not a bitter competitor. He lets us laugh at her, but he doesn't judge her morality (or lack thereof). Payne's three most recent films end with a heartfelt moment that gives the audience some satisfaction while still allowing for a decent amount of ambiguity. We are not sure if the characters will end up okay, but we've gotten invested enough to wonder.

This signature Payne character even appears in the short film segment he contributed to Paris, Je T'aime (2006), which centers on a lonely, middle-aged woman vacationing in Paris. Payne depicts this woman as he does his other male protagonists, so that we laugh at her but still feel for her. I found Payne's short to be the funniest and most emotionally affecting part of Paris, Je T'aime. In short film or in features, Payne never loses his voice. He is genuine without being sentimental, satirical and darkly humorous without being bitter and critical. He lets us laugh at his characters and get frustrated by their actions, but he never alienates his audience. He knows who he is as a screenwriter and as a director, and even if the follow-up to The Descendants takes another seven years, it will be well worth the wait.


facebook  |  twitter