Friday, April 16, 2010

Modern Maestros: Alexander Payne

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. This week I'm calling it the "What the hell ever happened to me?" edition. Alexander Payne's next film is slated for release in (probably late) 2011. Although there are many great directors as I have yet to get to, I don't necessarily anticipate this series lasting that long. So whenever we feature Payne it'll have to be as someone who's in the middle of a feature film drought.

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.
Disasters: Nada
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.


Ben said...

I love Payne, and I'd rank his movies this way:

-Election (masterpiece)
-About Schmidt (very very close to a masterpiece)
-Sideways (very good if a tad overrated)
-Citizen Ruth (good but a bit of a warm up)
**Paris Je T'amie was perfect, but I don't feel comfortable putting it against his other movies.

To me, I see some influence from Billy Wilder. He's definitely made his own influence too- Jason Reitman seems to be channeling him, especially in Up in the Air. Also, does anyone else watch Glee and think of a less mean-spirited Election?

Anonymous said...

i love 'election' and 'about schmidt' is better than people remember.

'sideways' is overrated.

Robert Hamer said...

Poor Sideways. A perfectly good dramedy now cursed with the dreaded 'overrated' label simply because critics were a little too excited for it when it came out.

Jorge Rodrigues said...

I totally agree with Robert.

Sideways is a perfectly fine comedy that can't seem to shake off that "overrated" title. When are people going to let it go (same with Juno)?

It's not a powerful drama, it's not a feel-good, inspirational story. It is what it is. It's highly enjoyable and a delightful pleasure to watch.

I just hope future generations can appreciate its real worth.

Anonymous said...

I love all his features alot. If somebody asks me who my favourite directors are, Payne always springs to mind.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Didja know there is a Japanese remake of Sideways that's out now?


WHAT?!? This series isn't lasting through 2012 ???



oh and since Ben was doing it

01 Election
02 Sideways
03 Paris Je T'Aime segment
04 Citizen Ruth
05 About Schmidt

that's the way i see it. There's no question the Sideways was overrated BUT this now means that Sideways is now underrated ;) because Sideways is pretty f'in terrific.

Jeff said...

One of my five desert island movies without a doubt! Reese is beyond brilliant - one of the great Oscar snubs of the last quarter century.

Joseph said...

Thank you for giving some love to Alexander Payne!

I love Election so much. For me, it was that special film that made me recognize movies could be more than just mindless entertainment. I know most wouldn't consider it "high art," but for what it is- a cleverly crafted, hilarious comedy on American values and ambition- I think it's brilliant.

Since then, I've come across other movies that I love more. Election, however, will always remain a favorite just for providing me with that initial, revelatory experience.

Anyway, I'd rank Payne's movies like this:

1. Election
2. About Schmidt
3. Citizen Ruth
4. Sideways

I think Sideways is a very fine movie, but I kind of wish Payne would go back to the edgier humor and vision of his earlier films.

Reform Plastics said...

Recently rewatched Sideways and it's definitely not overated.

Payne really does need to work more - still difficult to state how good he really is.

Payne and Wes Anderson (in his own way) are clearly the best in their dramedy field - unfortunately they've insprired alot of dross indie.