Tuesday, November 15, 2011

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: The Soft-Hearted Cynicism of Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne is among a field of directors who shine a microscope on suburbia, on retirement, on everyday lives and situations. Sam Mendes, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach operate in this filmmaking world, where the most compelling stories unfold under our noses with our friends and family. Alexander Payne may have the best understanding of these worlds, and he tells his stories with just enough cynicism to avoid melodrama or overt comedy. Payne has made his career directing films about high school, the isolation of retirement, and the journey of lifelong friends, all with the awareness and sharp wit of a cynic. His latest film may take him in slightly different directions but I guarantee you it will remain true to the observations Payne makes in all of his films, keen observations about human nature and the way we all struggle to communicate.

Constantine Alexander Payne was born to Greek restaurant owners in Omaha, Nebraska in 1961. Unlike many filmmakers out there, Payne did not study film in any capacity throughout high school or his time in Stanford, where he majored in both Spanish and History. It wasn’t until 1996, at the age of 35, when Payne wrote and directed his first feature film, Citizen Ruth. Starring Laura Dern as a mess of a young woman caught in the middle of an abortion debate surrounding her own child. While it was small and relatively unseen, Citizen Ruth opened up those proverbial “doors” I often speak of for Payne, who would follow up with Election, a film which would find its way on a number of top ten lists in 1999.

Election stars Reese Witherspoon in a star making role, playing the high-energy Tracy Flick, a high school presidential hopeful. But the true star of the show is Matthew Broderick, the hapless principal dead set on ruining Flick’s campaign chances. Election is a sharp satire on high school politics, and it is a template for Payne’s entire career. Broderick’s performance is understated, steep in nuance, and pitch perfect. His principal McAllister, mired in a pathetic love affair, would serve as the rough outline for Payne’s protagonists in his next two films.

In 2002, Payne directed Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Nicholson’s latest Oscar-nominated role. Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a square Omaha businessman who, upon retirement, loses his wife and discovers almost simultaneously she had been having an affair with his best friend. About Schmidt is a quirky road picture, where Nicholson writes to a young African orphan, and travels in his new RV to try and stop his daughter’s wedding to a doofus waterbed salesman. Much like Election, About Schmidt takes the ordinary and the inane lives of Middle Americans and thrusts them into a cynical, and often times hilarious journey of self discovery. Payne had established himself as a director with a voice and a thematic model, once which he may have perfected back in 2004.

Sideways was the sleeper hit of 2004, a small picture with a big heart and a film which may have singlehandedly ruined Merlot sales for a year or two. The film starred Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as Miles and Jack, two lifelong friends traveling throughout the California wine country on the cusp of Jack’s wedding. While Jack is looking for one last fling, Miles is struggling with his recent divorce, with the fleeting hopes his fledging novel being published, and with the overwhelming sense of disappointment permeating his life. The film was a hit with critics and audiences alike and snapped up Oscar nominations all around. Payne would win Best screenplay. This is a beautiful and intimate film, one with great humor and great heart that, in hindsight, is arguably the best film of 2004.

Now, Alexander Payne sets his sights on Hawaii, and a new dramedy surrounding a dysfunctional family living in paradise. The Descendants stars George Clooney as a recent widower struggling to reconnect with his children while discovering his wife may have been having an affair. This sounds like standard Payne material, and with a new setting I fully expect Payne to explore the Hawaiian Islands with a different lens than most directors. Payne has a clear vision, and the clarity shines through in his wonderfully heartfelt cynicism. Many directors out there try and shine a light back on the audience in one way or another; Payne may have figured out how to pull this off better than any of them.