Monday, November 18, 2013

The Films of Alexander Payne, a film-by-film analysis

With "Nebraska" just having a limited theatrical release in America, I thought it'd be nice to look deeper into the filmography of Alexander Payne's. His first film was released over seventeen years ago and he's only made five films since, but he's still managed to really evolve and grow as a filmmaker through all those years. He's made films that will make you laugh out loud, and some that will make you tear up with a smile on your face. He's created some truly wonderful moments as well as some hilarious and unforgettable moments. Needless to say, I'm a fan. I don't flat out love all of his films, but I do admire them and I admire his approach.

So, without further ado...

Citizen Ruth (1996)

In many ways, "Citizen Ruth" is a strong debut from Alexander Payne. It lays down the groundwork for the much more successful satire that is "Election," while still being a good film in its own right. The film stars Laura Dern as a rather dimwitted, drug-addicted Midwestern woman who winds up getting pregnant. She's had four kids previously, all of them taken away from her custody by the state. When she gets in trouble with the law yet again, a judge rules that he'll be much less harsh on her if she decides to get an abortion. This decision is soon met with media uproar.

What the film gets at best is the satirical elements, and there are a lot of very funny scenes here. However, one thing that Payne would later improve at, the characters are a little too one-dimensional. While it's fun to see Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor poke fun at both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion people, the writers make them a bit too one-note, disallowing the movie to go beyond good satire. It's a solid film, and definitely worth the watch, but easily Payne's weakest effort to date.

Grade: B-

Election (1999)

Amazingly, Payne takes a giant leap with "Election" in every term. The characters (lead by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon) are fuller and more relatable and the satire is razorblade sharp, making "Election" one of the funniest movies of the '90s. Set in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, Broderick plays Jim, a high school teacher who's in charge of making sure the class presidential election runs smoothly. Unfortunately, this year, he's come across Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an energetic overachiever who will stop at nothing in order to become president. Jim convinces a naïve school jock (played by Chris Klein) to run against Tracy Flick, believing Flick has had it way too easy in life. This winds up causing all kinds of problems on its own, especially when Jim's personal life starts to fall apart.

I have probably watched "Election" over ten times and the movie simply never gets old. What is underrated about Alexander Payne is his stylistic tendencies. Here, "Election" bares a lot of stylistic similarities to Scorsese's "Goodfellas": the freeze frames, the multiple voice overs, the frenetic pacing, the editing. This is perhaps Payne at his funniest. Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick both turn in their finest performances, with Broderick's character being especially fun considering Broderick played Ferris Bueller thirteen years earlier. If you're a newcomer to Payne's films, this is the film to start with.

Grade: A

About Schmidt (2002)

I attempted to do my mini-analysis of this film the other day, having not seen the film for over five years. Maybe longer. Watching it again very recently, I was struck by how closely this film matches "Election," style-wise. I initially thought of "About Schmidt" as being a bit more laid back and droll than Payne's previous work, but now watching it again, I don't see that at all. This is a great, well-paced, often funny film and features one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances. Payne was really able to get something special out of Jack, a more vulnerable side that we've never really seen before. That, alone, deserves huge praise.

Jack plays Warren Schmidt. When the film opens, we see him counting the seconds until his retirement starts. He's worked at an insurance company for 34 years and now that he's retiring, he finds himself having absolutely nothing on the horizon. But when his wife dies suddenly, and with the date of his daughter's wedding coming up, Warren finds himself with real purpose: stop his daughter from marrying a loser. But it's not about his daughter marrying a loser, it's about Warren's desire to hold onto the only person he has left in his life. Payne and Jim Taylor add a touch of subtlety in their approach to the screenplay that makes "Schmidt" a little less immediate than "Election," but also gives it a stronger emotional resonance. This is the first time we see Alexander Payne unveiling his sentimental side, and it totally works.

Grade: A-

Sideways (2004)

"Sideways" is an absolute gem of a film and finds Payne at the absolute apex of his filmmaking career thus far. Judging it now, with Payne's earlier films much fresher in mind, "Sideways" really seems like the ultimate culmination of what Payne had been driving towards since his first film. Not so heavy on the satire, but definitely not short on laughs, what makes the film stand out is the perfect tonal pitch that Payne achieves here. The 'dramedy' is not exactly an easy genre to pull off, it takes real skill to find the right balance between comedy and drama. There are many other dramedies that pull too much in one direction and the film winds up becoming a little too uneven. One example? Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, both of whom co-wrote "The Descendants" with Payne, wrote and directed this year's "The Way, Way Back" and it's the perfect example of what I'm talking about here. That's a film that is really at its peak when Sam Rockwell is on screen cracking jokes, but the protagonist's family life is just a little too worn out and predictable for the film to really resonate on both ends.

Payne's film "Sideways" does not have that problem. It's up there with Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Hal Ashby's "Harold & Maude," Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters", and James L. Brooks's "Broadcast News" as great films that manage to achieve that perfect balance. "Sideways" also happens to be beautifully shot, capturing California's wine country with great warmth. We also get career-best performances from Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen. And overall, it's just a funny, poignant film about two buddies who decide to head up to wine country before one of them gets married. It's a film that, like "About Schmidt" and "Nebraska" questions our place in this world, only this time it's from the perspective of middle age. These characters not only love wine because they're, most likely, alcoholics, but it's also intimidating to think of how wine gets better with age and has the ability to outlast all of us and without ever growing stale.

When "Sideways" was released in the fall of 2004, it wound up getting a lot of attention during the awards season which immediately lent itself to some unfair backlash by people who were, perhaps, expecting more than what they got. But it should be no surprise that Sideways has turned out to have a much longer shelf life than the other films that were nominated for best picture that year. It's a beautifully observed film with hardly a sour note.

Grade: A

The Descendants (2011)

Funny enough, people who were high on Payne's previous film wound up feeling a bit underwhelmed by his follow-up, "The Descendants." What made matters worse is that Payne hadn't made a film for seven years up to this point. He was stuck in pre-production on a very ambitious sci-fi comedy called "Downsizing" and could never get the funding he needed to really make that film work, so he decided to go ahead with "The Descendants."

And after that seven-year-long wait, what we wound up getting from "The Descendants" is a film that is much gentler and more laid back than what we're used to from Payne. He had shown his sentimental side before with his previous two films, but never was it more at the forefront as it is here. Starring George Clooney, and set in Hawaii, the film centers on the life of Matt King, an attorney whose wife winds up in a coma after a horrific boating accident. That event is sad enough in itself, but when King finds out that his wife was having an affair before the accident, it makes him seriously re-evaluate his marriage and it leaves him wanting answers. Answers he'll never get from his wife.

What I noted in my original review of the film, "The Descendants" does a great job of matching the naturally laid back lifestyle that is Hawaii, but I also noted that the film's more dramatic elements begin to suffer because of that pacing. The film's emotional heaviness just doesn't mesh well with its comedic components. This film feels like Payne brushing off the rust that began to form after being away from filming for so long (think about it, he must've shot Sideways all the way back in 2003 and this film came out in 2011). It's either that or the material (that is, the novel that this was adapted from) just doesn't lend itself well to the tone that Payne's going for. My praise for the film when I first reviewed it was rather muted and, looking back, it definitely feels like the least memorable out of Payne's films. But the craft is still there, the performances are very solid, and the film still does a lot of things right. It's easy to like "The Descendants," but I don't love it.

Grade: B

Nebraska (2013)

You can find my full review for "Nebraska" here but I did want to note a few more things about this film, especially when we're comparing it to the rest of Payne's filmography.

First of all, "Nebraska" and "About Schmidt" are remarkably similar films, both heavily examine the existential plight of old age, but the films have vastly different approaches. While "About Schmidt" has a heavily satirical slant, "Nebraska" is much more straight-forward and direct. This is helped by the black-and-white cinematography, which gives everything a very immediate, "what you see is what you get" type feel. And while "Nebraska" is not without its satirical observations, its strength is the one common thread in all of Payne's films, excluding "Citizen Ruth." That strength would be well-developed characters. "Nebraska" is the only film of Payne's of which he didn't co-write, but his voice is definitely there. Nobody captures Midwestern America better than Payne (except for the Coen Brothers, maybe) and that's proven once again with this film.

I definitely liked "Nebraska" more than "The Descendants," but I wouldn't really call it a return to form from the director. These two films still showcase a gentler, more direct side of Alexander Payne and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I don't think he's ever really lost his form, I just wonder if he'll ever move onto new territory. And while I already mentioned the similarities between "About Schmidt" and "Nebraska," I was surprised to see how similar "Schmidt" was to "The Descendants" as well. In both films, the main character doesn't find out about his wife's affair until it's too late to confront her about it and this knowledge heavily drives both plots. Payne recently signed on to write and direct a film called "The Judge's Will" which is a story about a judge whose will happens to include his mistress, and it goes into the wife's feelings upon learning this. It's weird how Payne seems to be hung up on infidelity as it's also very present in "Election" and "Sideways."

Grade: B+

Regardless of whether or not his most recent films don't quite match up with his earlier work, one thing that's undeniable is that there's really no American filmmaker like Alexander Payne. The closest comparison would be Jason Reitman, and that dude is Canadian. Plus, Reitman does not have the small town sensibility that Payne has, and it's that one aspect of Payne that really resonates with me the most. I love how he delves into these types of stories that rely so heavily on their location. Whereas every other American filmmaker continues making films either in California, New York, or abroad, I appreciate that Payne is insistent in staying in the Midwestern time zone (barring "The Descendants" and "Sideways"). It's that sensibility that makes his films so likable and down-to-earth. And he's shown that when he gets the elements just right, he can be truly great. He's in a class all of his own, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for him.

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