Rants and Raves: Alexander Payne
Reading Gaslamp Hosts A Retrospective of Payne’s Films
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando looks back at the films of Alexander Payne.
Fox Searchlight brings a retrospective of all four of Alexander Payne's previous features to Reading Gaslamp for a week-long celebration of his work in anticipation of next week's release of his latest film, "The Descendants."
Alexander Payne may not be the first name that comes to mind when listing great directors. Scorese, Almodovar, the Coens... those names might spring to mind first because those directors imprint their films with a distinct signature. Payne, on the other hand, has no discernable style, his subjects tend to be low key and rooted in the real world, and the studios release his films without a whole lot of fanfare. Yet Payne is one of the most consistently strong directors working in film today and his films reveal an ever maturing talent. So it's very satisfying to see Fox Searchlight, the distributor of his upcoming film "The Descendants," honor him with a retrospective of all his feature films in select cities. San Diego is lucky enough to be one of those cities with Reading Gaslamp Theaters hosting the screenings.
Payne finds comedy in unlikely places. In Citizen Ruth, he looks to the abortion debate. In Election, he finds savage satire in a showdown between a hapless schoolteacher and an overachieving teen. In About Schmidt, he sees bittersweet humor in the regrets of a recently retired man. And in Sideways, he looks to the mid-life crises of two men on a wine trip. Payne also likes flawed characters. Maybe that’s because they provide fertile ground for comedy and exploration. But he's also attracted to the humanity of these imperfect individuals.
In his first film, "Citizen Ruth" (1996 and screening tonight at 7pm), there were plenty of flawed characters as well as a flawed society on hand to provide laughs. Ruth (Laura Dern) is, as the poster suggests, "one bad mother." She is pregnant and in trouble with the law again, and simply wants an abortion. But she gets turned into a poster child that people on both sides of the abortion want to claim for their cause. Here's the trailer.
The great thing about the film is that Payne skewers those on both sides of the abortion issue as well as the media for fanning the flames of the debate. Ruth isn't spared either. She is shown as willing to change her morals for whichever side she thinks will pay the higher price. The film is not about the real issue of abortion but rather about how people have used the issue to serve their own purpose. Payne reveals a keen wit and a sly ability to poke fun at all his characters without turning them into complete caricatures.
In his next film "Election" (1999 and screening Wednesday at 7pm) he continues to deliver savage satire as he looks to a high school election in which an obnoxiously perky teen named Tracy Flick (Reeses Witherspoon in perhaps her best performance) takes on the popular jock (Chris Klein) in a presidential bid. Here's the trailer.
Entering into the fray is the jock's sister (Jessica Campbell), who is so disgusted with everything about school that she runs her campaign on the slogan, "Who cares?" Matthew Broderick plays the well-meaning but out of his league teacher who tries to teach Flick a lesson. The film is brutal in its comedy and brilliant in its insights into high school life. The Columbine shootings happened the same year the film came out, and Payne's portrait of teen life with all the cliques and tensions at high school conveys better than anything else I've seen what could have created the dynamics that made kids shoot up their school. There's nothing overt in Payne's film about a school shooting but he conveys so accurately how kids can feel isolated or marginalized within a school environment that you can see the kinds of pressures teens might feel and that could push some over the edge.
The film is also painfully hilarious. Payne takes the story to a logical conclusion and it's not necessarily how we want it to end but it is absolutely the right way for the film to conclude. It's painful because despite the comic exaggerations it is very much based in the real world. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and one of the best films of recent times.
In "Election," Payne strives for wicked satire, but in "About Schmidt" (2002 and screening Thursday at 7pm) he starts to display a growing maturity as he more fully acknowledges the humanity of his characters and tries to show how maybe they are trying to aspire to something more. Payne highlights the gap between their ordinary lives, and their unrealized dreams and potential. In that space Payne finds both humor and heartbreak.
In "About Schmidt" Payne casts Jack Nicholson as the title character. Payne prevents Nicholson from indulging in any of his squinty-eyed sarcasm and smirking superiority, and instead makes him deliver a performance of surprising subtlety. Payne pulls Nicholson down from his legends-of-acting pedestal and makes him play an ordinary man filled with very human frailties.
Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, who at 66 is being put out to pasture. He mourns over opportunities lost, worries that his life hasn’t amounted to anything and can’t find anything to look forward to. Plus, his only child Jeannie (Hope Davis) is about to marry a man that Schmidt thinks “isn’t up to snuff.” When his wife unexpectedly dies, the solitude prompts him to hit the road but it’s not the kind of road trip you might expect. Along the way, Schmidt bemoans his sorry condition and shares his observations with an unlikely confidante--Ndugu Umbo, the six-year-old Tanzanian orphan whom he sponsors for $22 a month. Here's the trailer:
Some may interpret the film’s end as hopeful or optimistic but I think Payne is after something darker. At one point Schmidt seems to be offering his daughter an olive branch in an attempt to resolve their seeming irreconcilable differences. But while Schmidt might be appearing to change his attitude he hasn’t really changed his mind about anything. He still thinks his prospective son-in-law is an idiot and he realizes that there may not be much of a place left for him in his daughter’s life. Payne suggests that Jeannie marriage is headed for the same kind of mediocrity and disappointment as her parents’ marriage, which is a rather downbeat but honest message. And when Schmidt finally gets a letter back from his foster child, the youngster’s wishes of happiness should not be taken as a sentimental tear-jerking moment but rather as an ironic counterpoint. Here is someone who has known true hardship and suffering, and the reality of that child’s situation should make Schmidt ashamed of his petty whining about his own middle-class life.
The film is a showcase for Nicholson. His Schmidt is both comic and tragic, and while not being entirely bitter about his life, he does suffer from a gnawing discontent. When he’s forced to give a speech at his daughter’s wedding, the scene is a triumph of grace and skill as Nicholson carefully calibrates the scene and lets us read conflicting emotions as Schmidt speaks. This is easily Nicholson’s best work in years as he delivers a funny but sometimes uneasy portrait of an ordinary guy coming to terms with his life.
By the time Payne makes "Sideways" (2004 and screening Monday at 7pm), the director has mellowed even more to deliver a compassionately observant human comedy. In "Sideways," Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are former high school buddies now facing middle age. Here's the trailer:
At one point Miles, a wine snob, describes his beloved pinot noir to a waitress.
"It’s a hard grape to grow," Miles explains, "It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention. In fact, it can only grow in these really specific little tucked away corners of the world and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it really."
And that description suits Miles as well. He’s the human embodiment of the pinot grape and maybe that’s why he’s so obsessed with it. As Miles, Paul Giamatti has a barely suppressed desperation simmering below his sad sack acknowledgement that life will not deliver all he wants. The film eschews a neat resolution and that may frustrate some but please viewers who don't want their films tied up in a pretty bow. Payne, working with co-writer Jim Taylor, has crafted a surprisingly sweet and occasionally tart script. Rather than judging the characters Payne and Taylor welcome their imperfections as an antidote to the slick shallowness of mainstream comedies.
Unlike wine, films are fixed and do not change. But what does change is how we react to them. Payne's films offer the kind of rich, complex comedy that viewers can savor and reconsider from different perspectives in their own lives for years to come. This retrospective offers the perfect opportunity to do that.
Payne's new film "The Descendants" opens November 18. Here's a little tease for you.
I will be introducing "Election," "About Schmidt," and "Sideways." I often complain about Hollywood studios but here's a chance for filmgoers to support a studio for doing something that's wonderfully right. So I hope you will come out to celebrate Payne as a filmmaker and to support retrospectives like this.