My favorite Alexander Payne movie is always going to be Election. His 1999 satire—about a high school teacher (Matthew Broderick) who makes it his mission to ensure that the ambitious Tracy Flick (a never-better Reese Witherspoon) fails to win her election for class president—wasn't just incredibly, darkly funny but also a sharp commentary about success, failure, and how high school is really just a microcosm of everything that's petty and terrible about adult life. The older I get, the truer Election becomes.
But being a fan of Election means having to contend with the fact that Payne, who directed and co-wrote the film, is probably never going to make another movie like it. And the longer his career stretches, the more apparent it is that Election is an anomaly for him. It's not that his recent films—like his new one, Nebraska—aren't funny. It's that the laughs aren't really the centerpiece anymore. For a guy who started out making nervy comedies about abortion (Citizen Ruth) and vindictive teachers (Election), Payne has transformed himself into a melancholy chronicler of the sad-sack. Who would have thought that the guy who brought us Election would now be our most prominent producer of the male weepie?
That's probably not what he's best known for, of course. Having grown up in Omaha, Payne has set several of his films in Nebraska, in the process gaining a reputation as a bard of the Midwest. In movies like Election, About Schmidt, and now Nebraska, Payne has captured the region's peculiar rhythms with a precision that's funny but can also rub people the wrong way, opening him up to criticism that he's being condescending or just plain mean to his characters. (As someone who grew up in Illinois, I find his Midwesterners pretty dead-on and loving, although he can sometimes indulge his characters' weirdness—I'm thinking of Kathy Bates's insufferable mother-in-law from About Schmidt—so much that it drifts into caricature.)
Nebraska might be the ultimate Payne film. It has all his trademarks: It's set (partly) in Nebraska; it has a road-trip element to it (shades of About Schmidt and The Descendants); and it centers on characters who have been dealt a bad hand. The movie stars Will Forte as David, a going-nowhere man in Montana who agrees to transport his irascible, ailing father, Woody (Bruce Dern), to Nebraska because he foolishly believes he's won a sweepstakes. On their journey, they stop in to see different family members, but for David the trip mostly gives him a chance—maybe his last—to come to terms with this hardheaded man he never has understood or felt close to.
People going to Nebraska for sharp laughs are going to be disappointed. Just because the movie has Forte (and Bob Odenkirk, who plays David's slightly more successful brother) doesn't mean it's much of a comedy. Instead, Nebraska is a drama in which people occasionally do something funny as a way to break up the silences and sadness. And most of the laughs come from Dern, who barks and mumbles through his performance as Woody, the last of the old-school men who don't share their feelings and would rather drink a beer quietly with their son than talk about anything more substantial than the weather. This is a film about family, regret, and aging. If it weren't directed by Payne, you probably wouldn't even expect it to be that funny.
This is the mode in which Payne feels most comfortable now. His first film after Election was About Schmidt, which was a pretty stinging comedy, too. ("Dear Ndugu....") But in retrospect, it's clear that About Schmidt was the beginning of Payne's second phase, that of the guy who made comedies that were meant to be touching, that were trying to get you to reach for the hanky. (The ending still kills me.)
It also signaled a shift in Payne's focus toward middle-aged male characters who were trying to figure out how their lives had gone wrong. Warren Schmidt (an excellent Jack Nicholson) has to contend with the fact that his wife was secretly in love with another man and that his daughter sorta hates him and is marrying a loser. In Sideways, Miles (Paul Giamatti) has to give up on the idea that his ex-wife will ever take him back—or that he'll ever make it as a writer. In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) comes to grips with the knowledge that he wasn't a good husband or father. The one outlier in this group is his really funny contribution to the omnibus film Paris, Je T'aime, which starred Margo Martindale as an unhappy middle-aged woman relating her lonely trip to Paris.
These men are failures, but Payne has far more sympathy than scorn for them—he doesn't hold them up for ridicule the way he did Broderick's Election teacher. Consequently, Payne's movies have become a little softer and sweeter over time. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that they've also been more accepted by Oscar voters. Both Sideways and The Descendants got nominated for Best Picture, and it's a safe bet that Nebraska will as well. (Payne shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for those two previous films.) No matter their considerable quality, Payne's films are the kind that play well with the older-skewing Academy: They're humanist in tone; they work within traditional narrative parameters (it's not like he's making The Master or Mulholland Dr.);and they usually end on a poignant, uplifting note. He makes the kind of movies that so often turn into schmaltz-fests, except in his hands they're often far smarter and more nuanced.
"I'm deathly afraid of being too sentimental," he recently told The New Yorker. "But a film should be emotional. There is a letter from Chekhov in which a young writer asks him for some feedback, and he's kind enough to do it. He writes the guy back and says, basically, 'It's too damn sentimental. If you want emotional effects, you have to place them against a cold background, so they stand out in relief.' I think that's true."
That's certainly true of Nebraska, which is in black-and-white and is probably his most deadpan work. But that quote is also indicative of an interesting quirk of Payne's personality. Although he mostly depicts "regular" people through accessible, funny-sad storylines, he carries himself with the seriousness of an auteur. In his New Yorker profile, he mentioned not just Chekhov but also French director Claude Lelouch and "Scorsese's lovely documentary on Elia Kazan." He's one of the few sorta-comedy filmmakers whom highbrow institutions like the Cannes Film Festival treat with respect. (He's been on the Competition jury, and Nebraska premiered there.) He's got Polish posters of Rosemary's Baby and The Last Detail in his Omaha home. He's a film connoisseur who is willing to declare of his work, as he did while promoting The Descendants, "These are fine little films that I feel I'm still cutting my teeth on and learning how to make a film and what a film is. I'm 50 now, and I hope this decade I can try and make one really good one."
It's a funny juxtaposition, this Midwestern guy making simple, relatable comedy-dramas who clearly aspires to be included in the pantheon of the truly great. But the way he's going about achieving that is not the most obvious. Payne doesn't make searing, confrontational, groundbreaking cinema. He makes movies about guys struggling through their midlife crisis that go for some mix of laughter and tears. One of the charms of a Nebraska is that it doesn't possess many of the hallmarks of auteurist cinema: It's a movie you can take your family to on Thanksgiving and not worry that it'll be too difficult for anyone in your group. But maybe that's why his films work so well. A lot of directors make sentimental movies about families and relationships. Payne does them better than just about anyone. He's our greatest sap.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.