No Payne, No Gain?

A celebrated auteur's sideways glance meets a rare hard look

In The Passion of Martin, the student film that distinguished Alexander Payne from his young contemporaries in 1991, the title character's dream girl laments a friend's marriage. "I can't stand to think of her," she says, "with her little doomed life of clipping coupons." Misanthrope Martin is predictably smitten. By the comedically tragic end of the film, when Martin's love has morphed into psychosis and his actions have made him a figure of comic loathing, we're long past commiserating with his sociopathic worldview: We've moved on to laughing at his excesses, pleased with our own well-regulated snobbery. Passion offers us a guy whose critique we can relate to; it allows us to mock banal commoners, then congratulates us for not taking our superiority to violent extremes.

This is pretty much the recipe that has made Payne famous. Omaha's favorite filmic son has become the arthouse bard for breadbasket middlebrows. His movies are anchored by sad-luck schlubs we can recognize, then pity, then forgive. The Walker's upcoming retrospective will give Payne fans a chance not only to get to know him (in dialogue with critic Kenneth Turan on Friday at 8:00 p.m.), but to recommune with old friends: Laura Dern's glue-huffing abortion-rights pawn Ruth Stoops from 1996's Citizen Ruth (screening along with The Passion of Martin on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.); Matthew Broderick's venal high school teacher Jim McAllister from 1999's Election (Saturday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m.); Jack Nicholson's broken-down insurance salesman from 2003's About Schmidt (Friday, June 10 at 7:30 p.m.); and Paul Giamatti's stunted-novelist wine snob Miles Raymond from last year's yuppie road romp Sideways (Wednesday, June 8 at 7:30 p.m.).

Those four films, three of them set in Payne's Nebraska hometown, certainly stand as archetypes of Middle America's liberal quandary--with all its geographic ambivalence and coast-lust, its self-loathing and resentment, its acrimony and eat-my-dust schadenfreude. But compared to the work of fellow outland satirists--John Waters, Todd Solondz, David Lynch, the Coen brothers, or Vincent Gallo, to name a few--Payne's critiques often feel like the smug musings of an overindulged undergrad who keeps returning to deliver cheap rabbit punches to the place that has made him rich.

Stoops to conquer: Kelly Preston, Laura Dern, and Swoosie Kurtz in 'Citizen Ruth'
Miramax Films
Stoops to conquer: Kelly Preston, Laura Dern, and Swoosie Kurtz in 'Citizen Ruth'

Despite the white-trashy preggo Ruth, whom we're encouraged to mock from the start of that first feature, the rest of Payne's characters (adapted from minor novels by Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor) are presented as somewhat empathic--trapped in situations such as moribund marriage, lonely retirement, and professional failure. Then each character does wince-inducing or even reprehensible things--Broderick dumping student council election ballots, Schmidt nearly ruining his daughter's wedding, Miles pilfering money from his own mom (a lush and a collector of hideous tchotchkes, naturally). But by the end of each film, instead of allowing these guys to stew in their own petty defeat (which Solondz does routinely without a whiff of guilt), Payne bullies us into conferring salvation on them with our cozy goodwill.

For lots of critics, Payne's penchant for mocking and rescuing these dull buffoons makes him a humanist. He has even, inexplicably, been compared to Preston Sturges. Maybe it's because of the great performances that run through all of his films. Dern makes a volatile and kinetic Ruth: Her pitched clinic fits--"Are you fucking people deaf? I said, I want an abortion!"--are iconically cathartic. Reese Witherspoon made her bones in Election, where Broderick deftly subverted his Ferris Bueller charm. Hope Davis and Kathy Bates stole About Schmidt from the vainly mugging Jack Nicholson. And every cast member in Sideways fought hard to outclass the insipid script.

But as much as critics may hunger for a new Sturges, Payne's jokes are too obvious, and his condescension always trumps his magnanimity. From the clichéd Christians and moon-serenading lesbians of Citizen Ruth to Sideways' rube winery tourists, Payne's camera mocks his proudly scouted extras and their world with pans showcasing their bleak streets, loud clothes, motivational paraphernalia, and cheesy decor. When Payne's focus pulls in tight on Mrs. Schmidt's Hummels, or McAllister's I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, or the cloth-covered jellies at Sideways' tourist trap vineyard, there isn't a trace of John Waters's glee at suburban hyperbole, or Todd Solondz's awe at its otherworldly curios, or David Lynch's sly peeks beneath vermin-infested facades. Payne's visual jokes don't interrogate what those affectless Midwestern buildings and tacky parlor artifacts might signify: In his films, these objects seem simply to cue a rote "there but for the grace of God" guffaw from relieved class-climbers in the audience. (DVD commentary tracks underscore Payne's directorial sensibility, as he, Taylor, and others chuckle and point out details--a pair of glowing prayer-hands, a hardware store clerk's garish red vest, a fat guy in a pair of Zoobas.)

Whether he's conscious of it or not, Payne's instincts track his market--that readymade core audience that has escaped the blight of the burbs, literally or figuratively. Or those tenacious souls who stick around places like Omaha or Cleveland or Minneapolis and struggle to stave off mall-rot and homogeneity. But all of us deserve better than to be flatly congratulated on some sort of hard-won savvy. ("See! We already knew Merlot was inferior!") We don't need these movies to fussily celebrate our transcendence of regional kitsch. Like his own flawed heroes, Payne seems unaware of certain failings. Of course, in the Hollywood world of Siths and Sin Cities, Miles and Schmidt might seem the most complex examples of humanity we can hope for.

Payne's female characters, though, leave a lot more to be desired. Critics might forgive Payne's facile jabs at mid-American bric-a-brac, but it's odd how easily most of them have ignored the placement of women in the narratives. Dern's Ruth is a straight-up dope. In Election, we're coaxed to view Witherspoon's ambitious Tracy Flick through the eyes of her teacher--as an opportunist bitch. Davis's character in Schmidt is written as a strident nag, and her future mother-in-law (Bates) as a rotund hippie grotesque. Finally, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen are hilariously improbable trophies for Sideways' two aging fools. Cast with such strong actresses, the roles take on lives of their own. But these are still men's movies, full of women who exist mostly as irritants or prizes. And really, compared to the tough-tender wit spouted by Veronica Lake's jocular little tramp in Sullivan's Travels, or Barbara Stanwyck's sublimely sassy grifter raps in The Lady Eve, the mawkish drivel about fermentation that Madsen has to slog through in Sideways belongs in the spit-bucket of celluloid history.

If you don't agree, don't worry: You're in the majority. And there's surely a glass of pinot at the Walker with your name on it.

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