Tag Archives: Alexander Payne

Let’s Get Small

Downsizing

by George Wolf

Word is, writer/director Alexander Payne has had the Downsizing idea for years, apparently waiting for when a satire of endless greed and unapologetic self-interest would feel the most relevant.

Good timing, then.

Payne, working with frequent co-writer Jim Taylor, returns to the political mindset he showcased so effectively in the classrooms of 1999’s Election. Here, their palette is a not-at-all distant future where science has come up with a solution for global sustainability: shrinkage!

By reducing people and communities to a ratio of 2.744 to 1, the potential for a guilt-free good life is off the charts! That sounds pretty great to Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), and a hilariously obnoxious info-mercial (Lauren Dern and Neal Patrick Harris, killing it) seals the deal.

Of course, it isn’t long before human potential meets human nature, familiar class systems develop and, as Paul’s smarmy neighbor (Jason Sudeikis) points out, getting small becomes more about saving yourself than saving the planet.

For three quarters of the film, the satirical slings and arrows find frequent marks, and layers deepen when Paul starts hanging with a crazy new neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and his cleaning lady (Hong Chau, in an award-worthy, film stealing performance).

Payne and Taylor aren’t as sure-footed when the satirical tone gives way to the absurd, or when a budding pretense makes the opening of a white man’s eyes feel a bit too heroic.

But while the scale of Downsizing is small, the film is thinking mighty big. The new world it envisions is engaging, with sharp comedy, unexpected turns and the keen observational structure to make it all impactful.

Unconventional Comedies For Your Queue

Out this week is the uncomfortable, hilarious gem that promises to go unnoticed this awards season, and that is a shame, especially for breakout lead Jenny Slate. Obvious Child could be narrowly labeled an abortion themed romantic comedy, which is not a crowded subgenre. In fact, it’s a refreshingly candid, surprisingly funny film that succeeds on its authentic direction, generous acting, hilarious writing, and one of the very strongest performances of 2014.

In case you, for reasons we won’t ask about, find yourself in the mood for a second frank comedy with the same central theme, you must naturally check out Alexander Payne’s brilliant 1996 effort Citizen Ruth. Plot points aside, both films’ most striking similarity is the absolutely stunning lead performance, this time with Laura Dern’s bold and amazing work as pregnant transient Ruth.

A Couple of Major Paynes For Your Queue

Nebraska – Oscar nominee for best film, best director, best actor, best supporting actress, best cinematography and best original screenplay – releases today on DVD. It should probably go without saying that the film deserves a look. Bruce Dern is Woody, a boozy old man who believes he’s won a million dollars and talks his son into driving him to Nebraska to pick up his winnings. It’s a lovely, surprisingly funny voyage and not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best films in director Alexander Payne’s impressive arsenal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIsgpbSa4_4

After Nebraska, a quick look at one of Payne’s underseen early films is in order. How about Election, a subversive laugh riot about a high school presidential campaign? Oscar nominated for screenplay, the film proved Payne’s agility as a filmmaker and showcased Reese Witherspoon’s spot-on comic ability.

He May Already be a Winner

 

by George Wolf

 

After a string of charmingly insightful films such as About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants, Alexander Payne has joined that group of filmmakers whose every effort is met with winning expectations.

His latest is Nebraska, and it exceeds them all.

The film follows the trail of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging booze hound in Montana who gets a contest solicitation in the mail. Convinced he’s already won the million-dollar sweepstakes, Woody is determined to make the required trip, on foot if necessary, to the contest office in Omaha where his prize awaits.

To appease his stubborn father, Woody’s son David (SNL vet Will Forte) steps in, and the estranged pair hit the highway for Nebraska. Along the way, they stop off in the small town where Woody grew up, reconnecting with old friends and family who have differing reactions to Woody’s new “millionaire” status.

As is his custom, Payne is able to convey much with graceful direction and an intelligent, restrained script. Artfully filming in black and white, Payne often lets wide shots linger, utilizing exquisite cinematography from Phedon Papamichael to create scenes brimming with a stark beauty. Similarly, the faces and facades of Woody’s hometown reveal the dark corners shared by any of a thousand communities weakened by hard times.

Dern is smart enough to realize what he has with Woody, and he doesn’t waste the role of a lifetime. With an awkward gait and world-weary countenance, Dern digs into the dimensions of his character, delivering a deeply touching performance sure to get attention in the coming award season.

Though casting MacGruber opposite the legendary Dern does seem surprising, Forte shows some nice dramatic chops, allowing us to relate with David as he slowly begins to see his father in a new light.

Scene- stealing honors go to June Squibb, who’s a flat-out riot as Woody’s cantankerous wife Kate, and the venerable Stacy Keach as a long lost friend who may not be so friendly after all. Keep an eye out, too, for Angela McEwan. In limited screen time as Woody’s old girlfriend, she breaks your heart in the best possible way.

In many ways, Nebraska seems to be Payne’s most personal film, which is ironic considering it is the rare directorial effort that Payne didn’t also write. Bob Nelson gets that credit, and his debut screenplay is layered with poignancy and humor. It clearly spoke to Payne, and his vision for fleshing it out is impeccable.

Nebraska is infused with a subtle longing, a wistfulness for what you’ve left behind. That may sound like a recipe for rampant sentimentality, but Payne and Nelson have other plans. There’s also a rambunctious, often downright nutty spirit at work here, and it makes sure Nebraska leaves you smiling, even as it hits you squarely in the heart.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars