Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The lost years of Alexander Payne

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It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since the release of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. When I first saw it, I thought it was close to perfect, if resolutely minor, but if anything, it has grown even more impressive over time—and in retrospect, it’s more clearly a predictor of the last decade’s dominant strain in comedy. In the years since it first appeared, countless directors have tried to recreate its heady mixture of slapstick and intensely observed discomfort—much of Judd Apatow’s recent output feels like a younger, hipper version of Payne’s work, and both Jason Reitman and The Office owe a lot to it as well—but none has ever quite managed to satisfy its audience on so many levels. In fact, I loved it so much that I wrote at the time, without any sense that I was voicing an ironic prophecy: “If there’s any director who ought to make an annual movie for the next twenty years, it’s Alexander Payne.”

Cut to the present day, when Payne’s lack of productivity has been so notorious that it inspired its own article in the New York Times. Payne hasn’t been inactive—he developed various projects, shot the pilot for Hung, and was “credited” with longtime writing partner Jim Taylor on the script for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry—but it’s still a startling gap between Sideways and his new film The Descendants. It’s true that the vagaries of Hollywood can lead to long hiatuses in careers for no discernible reason, but Payne himself seems to view his case as exceptional: he says that he hoped to have directed five more movies by now, and intends to pick up the pace. But there’s no escaping a sense that he may have lost some of the most productive years of his life. The Times article, by Frank Bruni, ends on a sobering note:

“They say you can do honest, sincere work for decades, but you’re given in general a 10-year period when what you do touches the zeitgeist—when you’re relevant,” [Payne] observed during another of our talks. “And I’m aware of that, and I don’t want my time to go by.”

Did the seven years between Sideways and The Descendants eat up some of his charmed decade, or is that decade just beginning now?

He was silent a few seconds.

“I have no idea,” he said.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Payne, or anyone else, making a movie like The Descendants every year. It’s precisely the film by Payne that everyone was hoping to see: small, intimate, agonizingly well-observed, yet emotionally and thematically ambitious in a way that sneaks up on you over time. It’s so modest in tone that it’s easy to overlook how beautifully shot and designed it is: its locations, its art direction, even the clothes by Wendy Chuck—all those Hawaiian shirts tucked into khakis!—are among the most subtly satisfying I’ve seen all year. And, not least of all, it features George Clooney’s most moving performance. Payne has always been great with actors, and watching what he does here with Clooney, who gets to indulge in everything from broad physical comedy to moments that draw on Brando’s scene with his dead wife in Last Tango in Paris, makes you feel the loss of the past seven years even more keenly.

Payne’s case is a difficult one, because he’s a formal perfectionist who tells shaggy human stories that feel as if they should be more numerous than they are. And while The Descendants was worth the wait, there’s still a sense of incompleteness to Payne’s filmography, as if a few lines had gone missing on IMDb. I don’t know if Payne, or his audience, would be any happier if he had been more like Woody Allen, who makes two minor films in a row so that everyone dismisses him, then comes roaring back with Midnight in Paris. But Allen’s career, with its amazing variety and productivity, comes closest to a model of what a director like Payne should be. Now that Spike Lee is taking a break, Allen is one of the few major directors who makes a virtue out of quantity—which, as I’ve noted here before, is often what makes quality possible. The Descendants is a great movie. And it makes me sincerely hope that we aren’t at the end of Payne’s ten years of relevance, but the beginning.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2011 at 9:59 am

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