Alexander Payne is one of the most unique directors to emerge in the past 25 years. He has embodied his 7 films to date with a uniquely dark sense of humour and wit, with a heavy focus on characters in crisis coming to grips with dissatisfaction in their lives they are and where they are going. Metacritic ranked Payne 2nd on their list of the 25 best film directors of the 21st Century. In spite of high critical praise and 2 Oscars for Adapted Screenplay, a case could be made that Payne’s work has been underseen and appreciated by audiences, in comparison to some of his contemporaries. From 1995’s Citizen Ruth to 2017’s Downsizing, Payne has produced an eclectic output, blending humour and powerful character drama to great effect and critical adulation.
Payne’s pictures often feature a cast of initially unlikeable characters, then over the course of the film, he continually gives the audience reasons to root for them. This is especially true of Sideways and the protagonist Miles (the superb Paul Giamatti). At times, Miles seems like he is drinking himself stupid as he goes on a road trip around California’s Napa Valley region with the soon to be married Jack. Over the course of the film, we see Miles come to terms with the things he is lacking in his life, as he strives to escape from his divorce and forge a relationship with waitress Maya. We are left to feel genuinely sorry for Miles, especially in comparison to Jack’s awful behaviour and treatment of both Miles and an assortment of women on their trip.
1999’s Election also forms a similar character study as we follow Matthew Broderick’s Jim Mcallister and Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick. Initially, both are unlikeable characters for different reasons. Mr Mcallister seems to be perfect, however, the nature of Flick’s insufferable ambition drives him to great unhappiness. We do grow to appreciate the reasons behind Flick’s strive for success and Mcallister’s attitude towards her. Election acts as one of the finest satires of both the American High School system and American politics in general. For my money, it’s also a more effective assessment of both than Netflix series The Politician, which covers some of the same territory.
The performances in Payne’s film often elevate them to another level as many of the topics of his films may seem predictable or uninviting on paper, with Sideway’s focus on wine or Election’s focus on High School. The performances of Broderick & Witherspoon in the latter are tremendous and some of the best work either has produced, the same can be said in Sideways with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church having incredible chemistry and selling the pairs’ strained relationship perfectly.
2011’s The Descendants also featured one of George Clooney’s finest performances, as a father struggling to reconnect with his distant family following the hospitalisation of his wife. The Descendants also features a great early turn from Shailene Woodley. About Schmidt and Nebraska also featured acclaimed, Oscar-nominated performances from veterans Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern respectively, in some of the pairs’ best-received work in decades.
One of the most unique facets of Payne’s films is his scripts, which can be emotionally devastating one minute and bring audible laughs the next. It’s no surprise that his two Oscar wins are in the Adapted Screenplay category, where he has received several additional nominations. The contrast in tone is a highlight in Sideways, where Miles’ drunken antics can often be hilarious but also bring some of the tenderest and more heartwarming moments of the film. Even when adapting other’s work, Payne is able to bring his unique brand of humour and pathos that has set him apart from many other directors working today and make him a truly unique voice within contemporary film-making. It will be exciting to see where his filmmaking takes him next.
Words by Chris Connor