From “Citizen Ruth” to “Nebraska”: Has Alexander Payne Lost His Bite?

File:Alexander payne.jpgWith his 1996 feature debut Citizen Ruth, 35 year-old filmmaker Alexander Payne had no fear of controversy. The satire stars Laura Dern as a pregnant drug addict who gets pulled between pro-life and pro-choice activists trying to use her as a symbol for their respective causes. The film is a vicious critique of both sides equally, with a brilliant final shot encompassing the film as a whole. Payne made his mark as a filmmaker, but today at age 52 his films have changed significantly. This week sees the limited release of his latest, Nebraska, a very funny, heartfelt family relationship movie about growing old and going home. And although it’s very good, it lacks the bite that Payne’s early films had, begging the question: just what has happened to Alexander Payne?

Without a doubt Citizen Ruth is his darkest, but that’s not to say his 1999 follow-up Election is lacking an edge. Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel, the film is a political satire set in a high school as a teacher (Matthew Broderick) and his students (the most notable being Reese Witherspoon in her breakout performance) become more and more obsessed over the upcoming high school election. It’s my personal favorite of his, and has a similar (if more subdued) cynical view of the world and human nature. It’s also pretty funny, the one trait that all of Payne’s films share. The film got Payne an Oscar nomination for best screenplay but after Payne made the change that ended up defining most of his career.

2002’s About Schmidt is probably his most forgettable movie, following Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) traveling to help at his daughter’s wedding after his wife’s death and discovering more about himself. Much like many of Payne’s later films, it takes what should be a cliche and overly manipulative story and packs it full of authentic moments and great performances. 2011’s The Descendants is very similar in this way but similarly forgettable. Luckily in between the two Payne went a bit darker with 2004’s Sideways, another “life discovery” movie, this time taking on the mid-life crises of two men taking a trip through wine country. The drama and characters get a lot uglier than in Schmidt or Descendants, and it’s that ugliness that makes it stand out as one of Payne’s best, as well winning Payne his first Oscar.

This week sees the release of Nebraska, the first film Payne has directed that he didn’t write, but you wouldn’t guess it as screenwriter Bob Nelson perfectly captures the style of Schmidt and Descendants with a healthy dose of the ugliness of Sideways. But still, none of these films come close to the biting satire of his first two films, and even though everything he’s done since has been at the very least good, one can’t help but miss the original promise Payne had. Arguably, the trend could just be attributed to his reading habits, since so many of his films are based on books. Maybe as he got older he wanted to focus more on relationships, what these later films focus so heavily on.

Or maybe Payne will eventually return to it, but for now it looks like the soonest we’ll see that new satire is a few years. Payne’s next project, The Judge’s Will, was summarized by Deadline as “about the final moments in the chess game relationship between an ailing Delhi judge and his beautiful younger Bombay wife. Each has separate lives even though they live under the same roof and as he nears death, the judge wants to be sure that his even younger, barely educated mistress is cared for and not cast out.” Payne continues to focus on relationships  and he has clearly mastered it, but with Election as my favorite of his I’ll always miss the old Payne.

Do you see a similar transition in Payne’s work? Which side of him do you prefer?

Article by Wesley Emblidge


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