Maestro: Alexander Payne
Known For: slice of life comedies about outsiders.
Influences: When scouring all things Alexander Payne for this piece, I found that he very seldom mentions comedy directors among his favorites. He usually talks about Antonioni or Middle Eastern or Chinese cinema as those which influenced him.
Masterpieces: Sideways comes close. Hell, they all come close.
Better than you remember: Nada again. All of his films have been pretty fairly received.
Awards: A lot of writing awards for Sideways including an Oscar, BAFTA and Globe. A smattering of lesser writing and/or directing awards for his other films.
Box Office: over 71 million for Sideways.
Favorite Actor: Payne in fact, uses a lot of different actors. But you've seen M.C. Gainey in two of his films (you'll remember seeing a lot of him in Sideways).
Why do we laugh at sad sacks? We've been doing it since the days of silent film (and a long time before that off celluloid). We laugh at them because we all see ourselves as sad sacks sometimes (or all the time). But we probably can't laugh at ourselves. So instead we laugh at them. Yet it's not schadenfreude. It's not pity. I think the humor comes from a great deal of understanding. Alexander Payne pines above for a time when films more closely reflect real life. He knows that comedy requires truth; just enough truth for us to relate, and just enough exaggeration for us to enjoy. For example, many of us know what it's like to have a friend like Thomas Hayden Church's Jack from Sideways, a persistent yet aloof womanizer whose charms sustain both his numerous liaisons and our friendship. And chances are our friend has never had to run naked through an emu farm. But it would be funny if they did. Similarly we all remember the characters from Election from high school. Not exact clones, but similar enough to be honestly funny. So does Payne cast the viewer in the sad sack role, or do we cast ourselves? He and writing partner Jim Taylor are extremely skilled in creating characters who are easy to relate to. Even if they drink and drive, or steal money from their mother, or piss on the floor or rig an election. We find it very hard to judge them (The few reviewers who did find it easy to judge them were not at all impressed with the film... so perhaps that's the key). Take the main character of Payne's short contribution to Paris je t'aime. Margo Martindale narrates her own clearly solo trip to Paris in terrible French with a grating American accent... typical annoying American tourist right? Nope. Likable, almost heartwarming.
Of course, let's not discount the contributions of the actors. Alexander Payne is a great director of actors (that keeps coming up, almost as if it's the mark of a great director). He's directed five actors to Oscar Nominations and more who've deserved it. I'm reminded of Jack Nicholson discussing how he studied lovable sad sacks Keaton and Chaplin in preparing for About Schmidt. Payne also owes much to writing partner Jim Taylor who helps him create intelligent comedies that play off their interest in existentialism (hence the Antonioni influence). Most Payne films don't wrap up neatly. Most end with an ellipses. Yet there is a distinct feeling that for our lovable sad sacks, things may be okay, that is, until the next inevitable catastrophe.
Payne should come roaring back next year with his next film The Decendants. But that doesn't mean he's been sitting idle. He directed that aforementioned installment for Paris je t'aime (in which he also had a brief acting part as Oscar Wilde). He brought us the TV Series Hung and wrote, or co-wrote, or partially wrote, or was at least responsible for any of the good parts (if there were) of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Jurassic Park III (seriously). Still, seven years is a long time to be sitting around like some sad sack, waiting for another brilliant feature film. If you're like me, you'll be very excited to see what kind of honest miserable characters we'll be greeted by in 2011.