The Work of Alexander Payne

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In the past few years, two-time Oscar-winning indie filmmaker Alexander Payne has made noteworthy strides with his remarkable filmography. With only 6 films under his belt, Payne is a masterful storyteller whose perceptive eye makes his movies entertaining, thought-provoking, and brimming with realism. Like other auteur writer-directors, Payne has retained a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style. With the exception of “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” almost all of Payne’s films take place in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Most of his films’ plots focus on people living in contemporary American society, specifically middle-aged male protagonists reaching a breaking point in their life, either by struggling to maintain relationships or making personal decisions that could drastically change the course of their lives. His films depict these characters through a mostly satirical but undeniably authentic lens, balancing both comedic and dramatic elements. Other recurring themes/motifs in Payne’s films include existential crises, familial ties, infidelity, and road trips. Visually, Payne’s films capture the starkness of the American landscape with expansive cinematography, as physical settings play a huge role in connecting with and influencing the characters (i.e. California wine country in “Sideways” and the Hawaiian islands in “The Descendants”). Almost each Payne film is adapted from a book except for “Citizen Ruth” and “Nebraska.” 4 of Payne’s films are written by Payne and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor (Bob Nelson wrote “Nebraska, while Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash wrote “The Descendants”). Here are my thoughts on Payne’s movies:

“Citizen Ruth” (1996)

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Clearly aiming to be a biting social satire on the abortion debate, “Citizen Ruth” is instead a juvenile, bizarre, heavy-handed, tone-deaf, and laugh-free “comedy,” where almost every character is an obnoxious caricature of their respective stereotypes. Ruth (a young Laura Dern) is the dumb, homeless paint huffer/alcoholic protagonist, who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. During a legal hearing, the judge asks that she abort her unborn child in order to avoid a long jail sentence. Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and Gail (Mary Kay Place) are the holier-than-thou, aggressively pro-life Christian fanatics, who bail Ruth out of jail. They attempt to coerce her into keeping the child, sending her to pro-life doctors who diminish Ruth’s desire for abortion. She ultimately finds herself taken in by one of Gail’s friends, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who happens to be an uber-feminist, pro-choice lesbian in disguise. Accompanied by her lover Rachel (Kelly Preston), Diane helps Ruth to get her the abortion she wants. Unfortunately, the pro-lifers get in the way of that, when an anonymous donor gives $15,000 to the “Baby Savers” foundation in order for Ruth to not get the abortion. Ruth changes her mind, until Diane’s Vietnam vet friend Harlan (M.C. Gainey) offers her $15,000 for her to have the abortion, believing in personal freedom and not sponsorship money. Ruth can’t seem to make up her mind (or her own decisions), constantly being swayed by both sides. The charismatic leader of the pro-life movement, Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), offers Ruth $27,000 and so on. After attracting local news and more protestors from both sides, Ruth suffers a miscarriage and decides to secretly take the money Harlan offered her. Once she sneaks out of the abortion clinic where she was supposed to have an abortion, Ruth nonchalantly saunters past all the commotion outside the clinic and runs away with glee. Perhaps I’m reading into the too much, as “Citizen Ruth” was made out to be a critique on both sides of the abortion debacle, in that both people who consider themselves extremely pro-life or pro-choice tend to make these kinds of situations more about themselves than about the actual woman carrying the baby. But even Ruth isn’t moral or responsible enough to make her own choices. She already has four kids, whom she cannot see. She gulps any liquor and inhales any patio sealant she can find. So what is the point even? Reynolds and Kurtz had arguably the best performances, making their characters somewhat bearable. However, Laura Dern’s totally unhinged, over-the-top performance is almost unbearable, her vulgar insults and temperamental behavior making Ruth into an unlikable character. It’s also unfortunate that “Citizen Ruth” doesn’t have any characters whatsoever to root for, as each person is deemed to be crazy in their own way. Smith and Kay Place certainly play their uber-religious characters well, but so much so that it becomes irritating. Some might say “Citizen Ruth” is daring, considering that it defies plot and story conventions completely — and they might be right. But other than the film’s slightly thought-provoking resolution, “Citizen Ruth” struggles to make its message clear. The only really positive aspect I will acknowledge from “Citizen Ruth” is its cinematography, the most well-developed part of the entire film. Below, you’ll see three great shots from “Citizen Ruth” that deserved some recognition. But other than that, “Citizen Ruth” was not a fun viewing experience.

(Note: I watched the “Citizen Ruth” trailer before seeing the movie. The producers marketed it to be this odd, hilarious comedy, but it’s actually an extremely dark movie, since it tackles a lot of heavy subject matter, such as abortion, miscarriages, addiction, and fanaticism).

Grade: C-

Favorite shots:

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“Election” (1999)

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Payne’s first film may not have been fantastic, but his second one, 1999’s “Election” definitely was. Featuring extremely clever writing and electric performances from Matthew Broderick and a young Reese Witherspoon, “Election” is a hilarious, enjoyable, and occasionally raunchy venture into high school satire. Though it may not appeal to some for its frank depiction of inappropriate romantic relationships, “Election” triumphs as a bold film about infidelity, fantasy, school politics, and the drive to succeed, more specifically to win a stupid high school student government election. Broderick plays the movie’s antihero Jim McAllister, a beloved high school civics and history teacher who’s kind of like a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller: likable and charming but mischievous and slightly deceptive. His normal routine is interrupted by the annoying presence of Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an aggressively friendly and ambitious overachiever, who will pretty much do whatever it takes to get to the top, starting with running for school president. In addition to being the advisor for student council, Jim feels threatened by Tracy’s goals to be student body president, especially after she had a covert affair with another teacher (one of Jim’s best friends). Determined to make sure Tracy doesn’t succeed, Jim gets dim-witted but popular football quarterback Paul Metzler (Chris Klein, who would star in “American Pie” that same year) to run against her. At the same time, Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run as well, in hopes of getting back at her love interest Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), who rejects Tammy for mistaking “experimenting” for actual love. While Jim thinks his situation has only improved, things subsequently get worse. Underneath Jim’s facade as a well-liked teacher is a deeply flawed, insecure man, suffering through loneliness in his unhappy marriage and anxiety in his quest to defeat Tracy once and for all. Unlike Ferris Bueller, Broderick’s Jim McAllister doesn’t get away with everything. Seeing through this ploy, Tracy doesn’t go without a fight and though the two never really “duel it out,” their battle is a hard fought one, filled with twists, turns, and manipulations. In addition to being a genuinely creative and entertaining film, “Election” is inventive for its unflinching look at the personality types of its characters and the absurd situations they encounter. Both Broderick and Witherspoon own the screen as Jim and Tracy, both in individual and collective performances. Witherspoon is especially great as Tracy Flick; she gives her a much-needed emotional weight instead of simply drawing her as a caricature. Tracy isn’t very likable, but she’s not completely unbearable. Payne directs “Election” with graceful poise and ease and his screenplay with Jim Taylor deserved to win for Best Adapted Screenplay, which it was nominated for at the 2000 Academy Awards (it lost to “The Cider House Rules”). Depending on the audience, “Election” can easily win people over, as it is arguably Payne’s best film and greatest cinematic achievement.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“About Schmidt” (2002)

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The melancholic “About Schmidt” is just as brilliant as “Election,” but on a much more understated level. Balancing existential drama with darkly funny undertones, “About Schmidt” is a wonderful tragicomic character study, with its plot focused on the story of Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a man suffering through an intensely lonely and dull life. After his anticlimactic retirement from working 20 years at a mundane sales job, Schmidt has almost nothing to do except wallow in his newfound boredom. He has very little hobbies or interests and would likely be the most ordinary human being on the face of the planet, yet we are drawn to him. This is most likely due to Nicholson’s magnetic lead performance, crafting Schmidt to make him interesting and captivating even when he’s not. After watching a commercial guilting him into contributing to a foster program in Africa called Plan USA, Schmidt decides to write to a letter to a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, realizing that he has nothing better to do. But as we see throughout the film, Schmidt’s letters are a way of releasing some catharsis from his daily frustrations, while trying to build a connection with someone like Ndugu. Through these letters, read aloud via voiceover, we learn of Schmidt’s alienating wife Helen (June Squibb), his adult, soon-to-be-wed daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), and how his retirement has affected him. Prompted to make some changes, Schmidt ventures out to Denver to see Jeannie and her deadbeat, mustachioed fiancée Randall Hertzel (an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). He drives there in his slightly too big Winnebago Adventurer, which Helen bought him as a retirement present, but Jeannie doesn’t want him to come to Denver until two days before her wedding. Reluctantly, Schmidt obliges, traveling to nearby spots instead, including his old childhood home (now a tire shop) and his frat house at the University of Kansas. During this excursion, however, Schmidt doesn’t feel the nostalgia that he so desperately yearns for. Rather, he is constantly caught in moments of self-loathing, mostly because of his guilt over despising his deceased wife and coming to terms with how empty his life is. When he eventually gets to Denver, Schmidt quickly knows what he must do (or at least, thinks he must do): stop his daughter from marrying Randall and subsequently from joining his whackjob of a family, which includes his eccentric mother Roberta (a hilarious Kathy Bates). But Jeannie immediately stops Schmidt from doing so, questioning his sudden interest in her life and urging him to not make such a rash decision. Once again, Schmidt must do what makes others happy and not for himself. While “About Schmidt” is primarily a drama, there are some really funny, lighter moments, particularly during the infamous hot tub scene between Nicholson and a nude Kathy Bates. But for the most part, Payne demonstrates Warren’s self-affliction through both a satirical and sympathetic lens. Like the protagonists in “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” Warren isn’t necessarily likable, but he has a certain quality to him that gives him an emotional, very human edge. This is especially evident at Jeannie’s wedding reception, where Schmidt gives what may be the saddest and most human wedding toast of all time — and Nicholson, of course, makes his searing performance even more compelling. The only minor flaw of “About Schmidt” is that it is a little slowly paced, with the film taking some longer detours than expected. But ultimately, “About Schmidt” is yet another spectacular work from Payne.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“Sideways” (2004)

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It’s strange to see in 2016 how “Sideways,” Payne’s most iconic film, was such a huge deal when it came out 12 years ago. It opened to wide acclaim, was nominated for several Oscars (winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay), and even influenced wine consumerism. In that sense, “Sideways” would fall under the category of slightly overrated, but I found the film to still be very charming, dynamic, and unconventional, even for such a conventional plot. Bolstered by strong lead performances and writing, “Sideways” overcomes its deliberate pacing with a shimmering blend of deft comedy and poignant drama. The story follows two best friends, depressed English teacher and wine connoisseur Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and womanizing voice actor Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church), who don’t actually seem like they would be friends. Their personalities are polar opposite, with Miles’ high-functioning alcoholism making him cynical and Jack’s ease with women making him optimistic. Yet when you pair the two together, they seem to balance each other out. As a fun getaway present for Jack’s upcoming wedding, Miles takes him up to California wine country, where the two get to enjoy some good ‘ol fashioned bro time, which includes drinking pinot noir, eating great food, and playing some golf. But Jack has other plans in mind as well; he wants both Miles and himself to get laid before the wedding. During their time in the Santa Ynez Valley, they meet two beautiful women who both seem to take a liking to Miles and Jack. Waitress Maya Randall (an excellent Virginia Madsen) develops a romantic interest in Miles, while wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) becomes sexually acquainted with Jack. During one night where the four get together, Maya and Miles have a beautifully intimate moment together, sharing their love for wine and how it makes them feel. I figured this part would make my eyes roll, considering how wine is often a subject of pseudo-intellectual conversations. But the way they express themselves, particularly Madsen, is totally honest and even eloquent. Of course, Jack’s fling with Stephanie doesn’t last very long, once Miles accidentally mentions Jack’s impending wedding, which upsets both Maya and Stephanie (this is in the movie trailer, by the way, so don’t blame me for giving plot details). In addition to the great writing and acting, “Sideways” includes lush cinematography and a sweet score from composer Rolfe Kent, who scored most of Payne’s movies. What “Sideways” also does well in is its ability to humanize Miles, in that the film de-stigmatizes depression and how it affects Miles. He drinks often as a way of coping with his inner turmoil, but also to escape from his painful, crippling self-loathing. Giamatti does a superb job of portraying this and I’m surprised he didn’t get an Oscar nom from that (yet Haden Church and Madsen did). The plot primarily centers on friendship, but it also takes note of how friendship can be a both positive and detrimental thing. Miles and Jack have a complicated relationship and “Sideways” showcases how their relationship unravels as they make mistakes and see each other’s flaws. Though “Sideways” is made as a comedy (which it is, for the most part), there are several dramatic components to the dialogue and the characters. That being said, if “Sideways” can pull off being comedic and dramatic, then it can easily work as a whole.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“The Descendants” (2011)

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After a 7-year hiatus, Payne returned to film with “The Descendants,” another emotionally heavy dramedy that explores the complicated dimensions of family and parenthood. Considering that this follows “Sideways,” Payne does a pretty admirable job with writing and directing a film that continues to demonstrate his artistry as a storyteller. Set in the beautiful landscape of the Hawaiian islands, “The Descendants” tells the tale of land baron Matt King (George Clooney), a man whose recently been grappling with several newfound issues in his life. His distant Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) wife is comatose from a boating accident and must deal with being the primary parent for his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, in one of her first film roles). Simultaneously, Matt is also the sole trustee to a large family inheritance that is considered to have lots of monetary value, prompting him and his cousins to discuss selling the land to make money. At first, Matt has no clue how to handle anything. But as the film moves along, he gradually becomes a better, more self-aware, and much wiser person than he was before. With these unfortunate circumstances, Matt is determined to make things right with Elizabeth, but soon learns from Alexandra that she was cheating on him with popular realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Together, Matt and his daughters, along with Alex’s simpleton friend Sid (Nick Krause), travel to Oahu to track down Brian and confront him about the affair. But even more so, Matt believes Brian deserves to know what happened to Elizabeth and that she is eventually going to die. For the most part, “The Descendants” is genuinely touching and well-written. However, even though the film’s screenplay won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Payne’s second consecutive Oscar win), the dialogue can be a bit too forced at times, especially during the confrontation scene between Matt and Brian. Perhaps that’s just the acting and delivery, but “The Descendants”‘s reliance on expositional voiceover can be tricky too, as most of what we learn about the characters come from Matt’s omniscient words. It parallels to “About Schmidt,” but there’s an iffy quality to the way “The Descendants” uses voiceover. Fortunately, “The Descendants” still delivers, thanks to great performances from Clooney and Woodley, some gorgeous cinematography, and its depiction of the themes of pain and death, which “The Descendants” handled relatively well by not making things too dramatic. The subplot with selling the inherited land was interesting, connecting back to the whole overarching theme of Matt’s emotional and physical bond with the place where he and his family enjoyed being in. Beau Bridges makes an appearance as one of Matt’s cousins, who sort of seems like a villain since he doesn’t want Matt to screw him and the rest of their family over by not selling the land. But as Matt understands during the course of the movie, family precedes money and that is something worth valuing (that may sound a tad cliché and sentimental, but trust me on this one). The last scene of “The Descendants” was especially heartwarming, as Matt, Scottie, and Alex sit together on the couch, covered in the floral blanket that Elizabeth wore in the hospital. It’s a subtle but really beautiful moment that signifies their literal and figurative thread as a family and how far they’ve come from being estranged and distant.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Nebraska” (2013)

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You could say that “Nebraska,” Payne’s sixth and most recent film, is the culmination of all his work. It’s another road trip movie and his first film based off of an original screenplay since “Citizen Ruth” (and much better written). But “Nebraska” also feels like a pointed dedication to the state Payne grew up in. Omaha had been the setting for most of Payne’s movies, but “Nebraska” explores other realms of the state, more specifically in the city of Lincoln. That is where Montana resident Woody Grant (a brilliantly solemn Bruce Dern) is headed to collect $1 million after allegedly winning a sweepstakes contest. His adult son David (Will Forte, taking on his first big dramatic role) denies that his father won anything, as he notices quickly that the “sweepstakes” was an advertising scam. Nevertheless, Woody is relentless, prompting David to drive him all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money. Like Payne’s other road trip films, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” “Nebraska” isn’t necessarily about where they are headed, but how they get there and what they encounter along the way. We also get to learn more about Woody and David as individuals and their complex relationship as father and son. During the trip, they see estranged family members, most of whom are just old white people who do nothing but eat, drink, and watch the football game on TV. At a bar, Woody sees his old pal Ed Pigrim (Stacy Keach), who used to co-own a mechanic shop with Woody. Despite David telling Woody not to talk about the money, the “truth” eventually comes out and Woody becomes the talk of the town. Luckily, two more Grant family members swoop in to intervene on the father and son’s quest: the blunt matriarch Kate (June Squibb) and David’s local news anchor brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Those two try to bring some sense into their pointless journey, causing even more familial tension to erupt — and so does Woody and David’s relationship. David doesn’t understand his intensely quiet father, who barely utters a word and denies being an alcoholic, despite being a consistent consumer of beer. David challenges Woody’s reasoning for what to do with the million dollars, as Woody believes he wants just buy a pickup truck and a new air compressor. However, as some troubling truths unravel, David begins to understand Woody’s condition and that his bitter quietness is really just an external cover for his loneliness. The million dollars wasn’t just meant for Woody, but for David and Ross as well. Sympathizing with him, David trudges on to Lincoln with Woody and though Woody doesn’t actually win anything, they are enriched by their experience together as father and son. What makes “Nebraska” another fantastic entry into the Payne canon is that it doesn’t veer too heavily into sentimentality, something that most family bonding films overuse. Payne trusts the audience enough to know the complexity of Woody and David’s relationship and subsequently provides authenticity to their dynamic. In addition to having fantastic performances, “Nebraska” is also aesthetically compelling. The cinematography uncovers the plain beauty of the Nebraskan landscape, which is complemented by the film’s black-and-white visuals. At times, the film can seem a little long (this seems to be a recurring thing for Payne), clocking in at almost 2 hours. “Nebraska” can be occasionally boring, but it surprisingly manages to keep its simple story from becoming too bland. As low-key as “Nebraska” may be, it remains a poetic, low-key, and well-acted story and probably one of Payne’s best.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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One thought on “The Work of Alexander Payne

  1. I’ll have to check out Citizen Ruth and Nebraska. I love Election (and agree that it’s hands down his best) but wasn’t a fan of About Schmidt or The Descendants. The others just lacked the bite of Election. I appreciate a movie that makes all of its characters awful but still slightly sympathetic.

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