Alexander Payne

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6.5 Citizen Ruth (1996)
6.8 Election (1999)
7.0 About Schmidt (2002)
7.1 Sideways (2004)
6.8 The Descendants (2011)
7.3 Nebraska (2013)
6.8 Downsizing (2017)

Alexander Payne (USA, 1961) debuted with the hilarious satire Citizen Ruth (1996).

Election (1999) is a teen comedy in reverse, whose hero is an obnoxious girl who always wins. And in the background the adult world that can do little against her prevarication, a sign that the future adult world will be even worse than theirs.

(DeepL translation of my original Italian text)

Tracy is the model student at a high school. She`s practically the only one competing for the position of student president. Jim is a good-natured teacher who somewhat dislikes the overly diligent girl. Not only that, Tracy has destroyed the career of another teacher, his friend, because of their more or less secret affair. Jim thus encourages a shy boy from a rich family to present himself as a second candidate. The boy, Paul, who has never felt like a nobody, suddenly wakes up and throws himself into the adventure with enthusiasm, even arousing the jealousy of his sister Tammy, the black sheep of the family. Tammy in turn decides to run for office. Jim meanwhile, despite the fact that his marriage is practically perfect, has fallen in love with his friend's wife, Linda, and one day commits takes advantage of his moment of weakness. His wife, informed by Linda, throws him out the door. On election day, after Tracy has used all legitimate and illegitimate tricks to preserve his advantage over Paul, Jim does not resist and alters the verdict of the electorate, making Paul win. Tracy discovers the wrongdoing, however, and sues him, causing him to resign. Jim ends up teaching at a New York museum, and one day sees Tracy getting into the limousine of a prominent politician.

About Schmidt (2002) is a road movie.

Sideways (2004)

The Descendants (2011) is a melancholy story that is part domestic comedy and part family drama in an exotic peaceful setting. A man faces his responsibilities towards many people and at the same time is given the power to establish the criteria for justice. Ultimately he convicts himself, acquits his adulterous wife, and finds a way to make sure that the other adulterer and the greedy relatives are not rewarded. His reward for a just settlement with this world is that he finally becomes a real father to his children.

The action takes place in the relaxed atmosphere of Hawaii. Matt is a middle-aged lawyer whose wife is in a coma after a boat accident. He feels remorse because he neglected his family for his business but now is determined to make changes as soon as his wife recovers. He is taking care of their younger daughter Scotty and realizes that he hardly knows her. At the same time Matt is the trustee for a piece of land that his family inherited in the old days. Now the family has decided to sell it, and it will turn all of them into rich people. One day the doctor tells him that there is no hope: they have to unplug his wife and let her die. Matt absorbs the shock and decides to go fetch his elder daughter Alexandra. She's a rebellious teenager and he finds her drunk. he brings her home and scolds her but she talks back: he has been so clueless all this time that he didn't even realize his wife was cheating on him. Alexandra hated her mother for it. He runs to his wife's best friend and demands an explanation. He is told the name of the guy. Again, he absorbs the shock calmly. He realizes that he deserved it because he neglected his wife so much. But he decides that he wants to see the man, and so does Alexandra, who has brought her dumb boyfriend Sid with her. This Brian is currently out of town, precisely in the island where Matt's family property is located. Matt decides to fly there just to see Brian. Alexandra is determined to go with him and so they have to take Sid and Scotty with them too. It turns out that this Brian is the real estate agent who is going to make a lot of money when Matt's family estate is sold. Matt finds Brian accidentally while jogging and later meets his wife at the beach. Matt and Alexandra show up at Brian's place with the excuse of common acquaintances. Matt confronts Brian but avoids exposing him as an adulterer in front of his wife. Matt just wants to give Brian a chance to see the dying woman one last time. The meeting with Brian and the thought that he will get rich when Matt signs the paper for the land sale make Matt doubt. When the family gets together to witness the signing, Matt backs out, at the cost of creating lots of enemies. Being the trustee, if he doesn't sign, the sale cannot proceed. Matt and children fly back home. They are at the hospital when Brian's wife comes to visit. She is a decent woman and Brian has confessed to her. When he is left alone with his wife, Matt kisses her goodbye tenderly. After the cremation the family takes a boat and throws the ashes in the sea. His daughter Alexandra, meanwhile, has grown up and bonded with him.

Nebraska (2013), scripted by Bob Nelson and shot in bleak black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, is a devastating fresco of the Midwest, a depressing place without decent jobs where men age badly, drinking and dreaming, trying to forget their intermingled past stories, until they fall for the most ridiculous of scams or ideologies. This is another road movie, although quite different in character from About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004): this time the road joins family homes, each of which is highly symbolic (the home of the protagonist, the home of his brother and the ruined home where they grew up). It's alternatively a sentimental, bitter and comic journey. The landscape is mostly empty, even when we're in towns. There is no bustling and hustling. The only action is in the saloon, where people sing karaoke, and at home, where they watch television together. In a sense, this is Payne's version of Lynch's The Straight Story (1999): the saga of a stubborn silly old man. But unlike Lynch, Payne paints a depressing portrait of the middle-class family: something had already been eroded between the family of the 1950s and the family of 1999, and in the following 14 years something even worse has happened to the community as a whole. Family is not magic at all in this film: it's a closet full of skeletons. And more skeletons accumulate when relatives suspect that the old man has become rich. Nonetheless, Payne manages to find humor in the tragedy, and finds a touch of old family values in the happy ending. At moments, when the film evokes the dark mood of irreversible decline and humiliation, it's hard not to hear echoes of Springsteen's album Nebraska. Like in Springsteen's best songs, this is also a process of discovery: the witness of the old man's madness is slowly driven to discover the complex past of his father.

An old frail man is walking alone on a highway heading out of town. A police officer stops him to find out what's wrong with him. Hours later the son, David, comes to pick up the old man, Woody, at the police station. Woody tells his son that he was headed to Nebraska, about a thousand kms away, to collect a million dollars that he won in a sweepstake, and he's going to walk there if nobody drives him there. David rolls his eyes when he sees the the sweepstakes letter is a scam, and drives dad home, where mom is anxiously waiting and complains that the senile old man is driving her crazy. We see that David works as a salesman and is struggling to make ends meet. Then we see that the old man, Woody, is at work in his garage. He laments that his old pickup truck doesn't work (it hasn't worked for years) and that he doesn't have a compressor. David's older brother Ross is also worried about the mental sanity of the old man. He's doing better than David: he just got a new job as a television host. We also learn that Woody is an alcoholic and is not allowed to drive anymore. David seems to pity his father, but Ross is less tolerant and is ready to lock the old man in a nursing home: Ross feels that Woody didn't do much for them when they were young. David's old girlfriend visits David. She wants to be a friend but doesn't want to move back in with him. The following day Woody again walks out of the house and David has to go and look for him. Woody is determined to walk to Nebraska and collect his million dollars, no matter what. David, who needs some change, decides to drive his dad, despite his mother's protestations that this is madness. And so father and son begin a long road trip. David takes a detour to South Dakota to show his father the famous monument of Mount Rushmore, but the old man is not impressed and even criticizes the quality of the artwork. They take a hotel room and at night the old man slips and falls, cutting his head. After closing the wound with stitches, the hospital recommends that the old man spends the night there. The following day David decides to stop to visit Woody's brother Albert, whose town is on the way to Nebraska. Albert's family is not doing any better than Woody's: Albert is as senile as Woody, and hardly rejoices at seeing his brother after many years, and Albert's sons Cole and Bart. are both unemployed, fat and dumb. They make fun of David, who took two days to drive there, not realizing that they are total losers. The family spends most of the time watching television. David and Woody walk around the town where Woody used to be well known, but everything has changed: his old garage has new owners (Mexicans) and the saloon too has a new owner. Woody is not supposed to drink alcohol but David lets him go. David too has stopped drinking but follows Woody's bad example and drinks too. Woody is bitter about his wife, David's mom: he blames her constant nagging for getting into alcohol. Asked why he married her, he doesn't seem to have a good answer, and seems indifferent to the two sons, claiming that they were born simply because she was a Catholic (i.e. opposed contraceptives and abortion). Every now and then David tries to convince his dad that there is no million dollar, but the old man is unstoppable. Finally, they run into someone who recognizes Woody: his old business partner Ed, who apparently stole his air compressor and owes Woody a few dollars. Woody makes the mistake of telling Ed that he won a million dollars. Within minutes the word spreads around town. Woody is a celebrity again, as he was as a young man. We also learn that he fought in the Korean War. The following morning Albert and his sons are upset that they learned of the million dollars from gossip. David denies the story in vain. They believe that David is trying to keep it a secret to avoid that everybody asks them for money. Mom arrives by bus, determined to bring them back home. It's a chance to visit the cemetery where Woody's family is buried. Woody seems indifferent to all the tombs, but mom Kate talks about each person to David, and so David learns about the past tragedies of the family. Kate doesn't mince words about those she disliked. The local newspaper wants to run a story about Woody becoming a millionaire. David visits the owner, an old woman, and tells her the truth. She is not surprised that Woody dreamed up the whole story. She knew him well: she was his girlfriend before Kate "stole" him from her. She holds no grudges, being happily married with children and grandchildren. David, mom and dad dine at the local restaurant just when Ed is there, and Ed tells the whole place that Woody is a millionaire and everybody gives him an applause. Ed later confronts David in the restrooms and demands a share of the million dollars. David explains in vain that the money is an illusion. Ed doesn't believe him and threatens a lawsuit. We learn that one of Albert's son has to do "volunteer" work as punishment for having sexually assaulted a girl. Ross too comes to visit Albert, so now the entire two families are in the same house. More relatives are invited to a big dinner. The women cook while the men watch television. During dinner the family starts talking about the million dollars. Ross is furious that anybody believes the story of his lunatic father, but the family smiles and keeps believing that the million dollar is real. Later family members approach David and Ross and ask a share of the million, claiming that they took care of Woody when he was an alcoholic, and fat dumb cousins Cole and Bart claim a right too on some money. Ross vehemently denies the existence of the money but nobody believes him, and Ross even gets into a fight with one of the fat dumb cousins. When Kate learns of the reason, she scolds all the relatives, revealing that the opposite is true: Woody and Kate helped them when they were in need. Uncle Albert is the only one who doesn't care about Woody's money: when he's not sitting in front of the TV set, he sits by the road watching cars pass by. David, Ross and their parents Kate and Woody decide to visit Woody's ancestral home, now a ruined farmhouse. This visit brings back Woody's memories and David learns new facts about his father. As they drive away, Kate seems to recognize Ed's farmhouse. They knock at the door but nobody answers. David and Ross decide to steal Ed's air compressor, which their dad claims was stolen from him. As they drive away, Woody tells them that it was the wrong house. He didn't say anything because, fundamentally, he doesn't care about what people do or don't do. He only cares about getting to Nebraska. Kate now remembers that the owners of the farmhouse are a very nice couple who never hurt anybody. David and Ross have to rush back to return the air compressor, just when the nice couple arrives home (the most comic scene of the film). That night David is having a drink with his father at the saloon. Again, Ed approaches them and demands his share of the million. He also reveals to David that Woody cheated on Kate when Ross was already born, and justified him basically insulting David's mother. David lets it go and takes his father out. But outside the dumb cousins attack them and steal the sweepstakes letter from Woody. David meets them at their house and asks in vain for them to return the letter: they threw it away after realizing that it's a scam. Woody is devastated, not because now everybody knows he is delusional but because he believes he is being robbed of a million dollars. In the middle of the night, David helps Woody look for the sweepstakes letter that the evil cousins threw away. They can't find it but walk into the saloon and see that Ed has it and is reading it aloud to the patrons, making fun of silly Woody who thinks he is a millionaire. Woody slowly picks up his letter and David can't resist to punch Ed in the face (the only act of violence in the entire film). But David is exhausted and wants to end the charade. Woody opens up that he wants to buy a pickup truck. David points out that Woody is not allowed to drive. Woody mumbles that he wants to leave something to his children. David tells him that he doesn't need to, that he and Ross are fine. And David confesses that he set out on this trip simply as an excuse to visit Woody's family. Woody accepts to return home. Woody spends another night at the hospital. Ross and Kate drive back home. David falls asleep and sure enough Woody disappears again. As usual, David finds the old man walking on the highway towards Nebraska. David has no choice but drive him to Nebraska. They walk into the office of the sweepstakes company and of course the secretary informs Woody that he is not one of the winners. This time Woody finally accepts to drive back home. On the way, David trades his own car for a pickup truck in his father's name and buys an air compressor. When they pass by Albert's town, David stops and lets Woody drive through downtown, so that his old friends and family can see him drive like in the old days. Sure enough uncle Albert is sitting outside watching cars pass by and Woody can wave goodbye to him while at the steering wheel, and Albert waves back. Outside town, Woody stops and David starts driving.

Downsizing (2017) is a bittersweet sci-fi parable about the climate apocalypse, somewhere between magic realism and Brecht-ian theater. It is best when it's absurd and grotesque, worst when it allows Hollywood stereotypes to prevail. Its Lilliputians are reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" but they have created their own Lilliput to escape from the normal world. It is a multi-tier satire that takes aim at: the masses (poor and rich) that are indifferent to the damages caused by its way of life (the wife who abandons the husband because she prefers to hang out with the other "girls" and can't stand the idea of her head being shaved, and the hedonistic playboy who is more interested in apocalypse-inspired bacchanalias than in surviving the apocalypse); the middle class that is willing to do anything to achieve the "American dream" of owning a suburban home; the scientists whose utopia simply reenacts chronic social problems (the wealth gap between the middle class that can afford luxurious homes and the lumperproletariat that lives in a hidden underworld; the industrial complex with an assembly chain to manufacture humans); and the environmentalist movement itself, depicted as a religious cult. The villains are the humans who care only for their personal hobbies, images, money, and don't care about saving the planet: basically the whole human race. The exceptions are marginalized and suffer from a loss of identity. The protagonist, a lonely and depressed "everyman", is ready to join the environmentalist cult. The ones who want to save the planet for real have created environments that are totally artificial. Hope comes from the unlikely couple of two losers who fall in love and devote their life to helping the poor: the protagonist finds a new identity as a "good Samaritan" and love in the Vietnamese invalid. The protagonist is not the everyman, but what the everyman should be in an ideal world. The scientist has decided that humankind is obsolete, whereas Paul and the Vietnamese invalid have decided that humankind is still relevant.

The film opens in Norwegian laboratory where a scientist, Jorgen, is experimenting with mice and suddenly realizes that his experiment worked. At a scientific conference, the host announces a special presentation. He opens a small box, and Jorgen comes out of it: Jorgen announces the invention of a "downsizing" procedure that turns people into miniature beings, an invention that should save the Earth from climate change because small people pollute a lot less. Jorgen is starting a colony of small people in Norway. Ten years later, Paul and Audrey are a married couple that is trying to buy a home but don't have enough money. At a school reunion one of the couples that show up is a couple that "downsized". The couple is happy and explains how much more one can afford in the small world created by Jorgen, which has now spawned several communities around the world. Paul and Audrey visit one such community, Leisureland, and get excited when they see the kind of mansion that they could afford in the small world. They sign up for the procedure, sell all their belongings and take the bus to the downsizing laboratory. Men and women are separated. Paul is treated with a group of men. He wakes up and asks about his wife. The nurse hands him a mobile phone: Audrey backed out at the last minute and says goodbye to him from the airport. Paul is escorted to the giant gorgeous mansion where he has to live by himself. One year later, a (real-size) lawyer brings tiny Paul the (real-size) divorce papers which Paul has to sign after walking into them. Paul moves into an apartment, takes a humble job, and tries to date a single mom. His neighbor Dusan, a Serbian playboy, keeps throwing noisy late-night parties and Paul complains but eventually joins the party. During the party a sexy girl offers Paul a pill and Paul passes out after a psychedelic experience. He wakes up in the morning lying on the floor of Dusan's apartment and recognizes one of the cleaning ladies as a Vietnamese dissident who was briefly famous, Ngoc. She tells a harrowing story of being forcibly shrunk by her communist government. The woman lost the lower half of a leg and is wearing a prosthetic leg that causes her pain and could cause her more injuries. Paul used to work with prosthetics and offers to help her. She takes him to her place: it's a long journey to a slum located outside the wall of Leisureland's dome where people live not in mansions but in cramped high-rise apartment buildings in subhuman conditions. Ngoc has a housemate who is dying of cancer and for whom she steals random painkillers. Ngoc asks Paul to pretend to be a doctor and asks for advice about which painkillers are best for her friend. Paul explains in vain that he is no doctor. Paul clumsily damages her prosthetic leg so he has to carry her down the seven flights of stairs and offers to work for her cleaning company. Dusan is amused to see him return as a cleaning boy and is moved by how good a guy Paul is. So he offers to rescue him by inviting him on a trip to Norway, to Jorgen's original colony. Ngoc reveals that Jorgen invited her to visit and demands to be taken along. They fly to Norway and, during a tour of a magical fjord, they meet Jorgen and his wife. Paul and Ngoc are excited but Jorgen tells them that a group of climate scientists has concluded that humankind is doomed and will soon be extinct. Not enough people have downsized, and the result is accelerating global warming. Paul and Ngoc make love. The following day the visitors reach the original colony, which resembles the compound of a religious cult. An old woman who was Jorgen's original assistant tells them that since the beginning the colony has been preparing for doomsday: they built a vault-shaped biosphere underground where they can all move, survive and multiply for a few thousand years until the Earth becomes habitable again. Paul and Ngoc are given a tour of the vault and Paul decides to join. Party-goers Dusan prefers to wait for the apocalypse and Ngoc is devoted to the people she helps in the slum. The following morning Paul says goodbye to Ngoc who asks him if he had sex with her out of love or what. Paul enters the long corridor that leads to the vault but then changes his mind and runs outside before an explosion seals the entrance. Paul hugs Ngoc and tells her that he loves her for real. Dusan, Paul and Ngoc return to Leisureland, and Paul joins Ngoc in her unpaid volunteer work for the poor people of the slums.
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