Recently re-watching a bunch of his movies, it dawned on me that a lot of people don’t know the name Alexander Payne; and it really Payned me to realize that. Did you see what I did there? Huh? Pretty clever. But nowhere near the cleverness of this gentleman who has captured human life to its funniest and rawest in all his movies. For sure at the near top of the list of my favorite directors, I’m glad to have a platform on Goombas Gone Wild to share his work and his name with you. As the self proclaimed Alberta movie guru and contributing movie writer on this site, I want to bring you some features on filmmakers to brighten your horizon and maybe pass along some good film recommendations to you as well. Maybe you’ve heard a name and never seen a film of theirs or you’ve seen many but never realized who made it; let Names to Know be your guide to good movies and Hollywood knowledge.
Alexander Payne is of Greek descent but was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska; that will come to play a little later in our story. Ever since his childhood, he had a keen eye for films and movie history. It led to a big career move when he changed his majors from Spanish and History to movie making when he went to study at the famous UCLA Film School. Years of slogging his way through short films, unproduced features, and screenplay after screenplay soon followed.
But in 1996, Citizen Ruth became his first success, a comedy feature film starring Laura Dern who sparks an Abortion debate in her little town. Very low budget but still satirical, it’s worth a look if you’re in to topical and absurdist humor.
1999 turned out to be the ticket to Payne’s success, launching Reese Witherspoon to super stardom and resurrecting Matthew Broderick’s career. Election was a very intelligent look at high school, following a teacher who tries to sabotage a high school presidential election because he doesn’t like one of the students. There is so much going on in this film from embracing lesbianism, Chris Klein actually being funny, and Reese Witherspoon proving what a powerhouse actress she can be. It’s unlike any other high school movie out there. You won’t be bored or disappointed, that’s for sure.
Then we come to the film that earned Jack Nicholson his most recent Oscar nomination. About Schmidt is simply about Schmidt, an elderly man who suddenly loses his wife and hops in their motor home to put a stop to his daughter’s impending wedding. Otherwise known as the movie where Kathy Bates gets naked in a hot tub, About Schmidt is very sweet and fun, especially when Nicholson decides to send money to an African sponsor child and include letters about his day to day problems. It’s also a very different subtle performance that you’ve never seen Jack give elsewhere.
Sideways might be the most celebrated and well known of Payne’s films. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church head to California wine country for a bachelor party. Wine and two nearly broken men do not mix well. That’s why we love watching this one so much. It earned Payne an Oscar for the screenplay and has since become one of the most successful comedies of the twenty-first century. If that’s not enough to motivate you into watching it, I don’t know what will.
Then came a six year hiatus where Payne developed, produced, and even directed some episodes of the HBO show Hung. He also wrote a draft of that awful Adam Sandler comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, but he assures people none of his material was used.
Now we really get to the hot streak. George Clooney and a very young Shailene Woodley star as a Father and Daughter in The Descendants. Taking place in Hawaii, Clooney discovers his comatose wife set to die was cheating and planning to leave him. Instead of grieving, he puts all of his attention into finding the guy responsible. At times super sad and delightfully funny, this one is an honest look at loss. It’s probably my favorite out of all of his movies. Payne won a second Oscar for writing the film’s screenplay and a Golden Globe for Best Drama.
Nebraska is a close second, coming full circle by capturing his home state and directing Laura Dern’s legendary Father Bruce as a senile old man who wants to travel across the state to collect lottery winnings he claims to have won. Don’t let the black and white detour you because it only adds to the scenery and makes the film better as a whole. Will Forte’s dramatic turn is commendable and June Squibb steals the whole thing as the crotchety wife. It’s another very down to earth and true to life dramatic comedy that looks at aging parents and the trouble lotteries actually cause.
Payne apparently likes lotteries because he is currently working on a film based on the true story of a US woman who won the lottery four times. It’s called Septillion to One and is just starting development. The next project underway is a Matt Damon/ Reese Witherspoon sci-fi comedy about a man who shrinks himself to miniature size in hopes of living better that way.
So if you’re a fan of low key indie films, heartwarming dramas, laugh out loud satirical comedies, and just watching life up on screen in general, check out Alexander Payne. He hasn’t missed yet, steadily pumping out an impressive body of work with great casts, soundtracks, and thought provoking ideas about life.