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.