Alexander Payne, the great satirist of Middle American mores, returns this weekend with his latest ditty of wry social commentary, Downsizing. Often when a filmmaker establishes such a distinctive formula as Payne has in the last 20 years, the early works curry favour due to their relative novelty. What sometimes happens though is that unless the filmmaker evolves or is canny enough to rebrand their narrative world (an obvious reference point here is Wes Anderson), fatigue can set in and further works are often viewed through the lens of increasing critical scepticism. It would be stretching the point to say Payne’s reputation has taken a full-on critical dip in the last half-a-dozen years, but some of his recent films (namely The Descendants) have met with a more lukewarm reception, and the hallowed reputation of some of his earlier films is being somewhat downsized (intended!).
Chief among the criticisms of Payne’s signature is the condescension he accords many of his characters, and his favouring of cheap rhetoric and pathos. Election (1999), seemingly part of the new wave of funky Hollywood indie movies that broke out at the turn of the millennium – think Being John Malkovich, Rushmore and Magnolia (all released in 1999) – has seen something of a critical backlash in recent times. Its relentless artillery of grotesque players and wretched scrapes – all scored to ironic freeze-frames and jump cuts – can seem a touch obvious and conceited. Even the Jack Nicholson vehicle About Schmidt (2002), with its “Dear Ndugu” framing device and Kathy Bates jumping naked into a jacuzzi, engenders a similar salty taste.
What these retrospective naysayers perhaps overlook is that caricature and mordant whimsy are all bona fide sensibilities, and when Alexander Payne has been able to restrain that satirical bent just enough, as in arguably his two best films Sideways (2004) and Nebraska (2013), there are very few filmmakers more adept at holding a mirror to the glum underbelly of American society and to human nature as a whole.
Sideways in particular is an absolute masterclass in classical cinematic storytelling – surely one of the finest American films of the millennium so far. Payne undercuts the potential pomp of Sideways’ scenario by cleverly deglamourising it at every turn. He forgoes the starry casting that has marred some of his other films (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt; George Clooney in The Descendants) for an everyday, pitch-perfect ensemble of Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen – all more likely to be found filling up a character role in the minor fringes of a Hollywood picture, or, in the case of Madsen, many years past their heyday. Payne further colours this recognisable, almost humdrum, feel to the story by envisioning it stylistically like a made-for-TV movie. There’s the unassuming opening of an empty screen and functional credits; the lo-fi, easy-listening musical score that affects a light caper air to proceedings; and there’s even the intentionally naff use of split screen to depict one of the better trips Miles and Jack are having on their Santa Ynez Wine Valley drinking holiday.
Where Payne has always appeared most adept is as a de facto dramatist, and the richness of Sideways’ scenario, characterisation, dialogue and subliminal social commentary is an act of exquisite cinematic penmanship. Where Payne’s fondness for overly prescriptive, template narratives has started to become a problem for some commentators (there’s always a troubled character, a journey, some sense of conflict and resolution), Sideways – as the title evinces – has much a more complex take on the possibility of catharsis. If anything, it’s the archetypal circular journey – with the lead character, Miles, closing the story out in an even more retrograde state than he first entered it. After the clever contextual opening that sets the tone for Miles’ harried state, he picks his old jock of a college buddy, Jack, up from his gaudy Armenian-American mansion somewhere in the affluent climes of LA. When, a few days later in the story – and towards the end of the film – he drops Jack back to the very same place, it completes a beautifully comic but also profoundly moving visual effect. Miles’ bashed-up car is both a literal and a metaphorical testament to the midlife crisis wounds both characters have self-inflicted on their break. More than that though, as Payne’s camera stays with Miles as he watches Jack back into the house (allowing Jack’s excuse to his fiancée to play out: that his broken nose was caused by a bump to Miles’ car, rather than the wretched truth of an assault from one of his jilted flings), Miles’ affectionate smile is not just satisfaction that the childlike Jack has been delivered safely back to base, but more his own gallows recognition of the wry disappointments of life that Jack’s hapless return home represents.
There are numerous other examples that attest to the skill of Payne’s (and fellow screenwriter Jim Taylor’s) dramatist skills. All the characters, including the support players, feel like proper, lived-in people, and the quality of dialogue, as well as the scenario, is first-class. Where Payne perhaps deserves greater credit is for his visual flourishes. Sideways is a masterclass in mise en scène as informant to the narrative. We already know what type of guy Miles is going to be from the opening seconds of the film. This is not only because he has slept through his alarm, but due to the fact his apartment is so dishevelled – the books piled up horizontally, the laptop half-shut on the bed, the piles of clothes waiting to be washed or put away.
Perhaps the most skillful and perceptive of sequences in the film is when Miles takes a sneaky little pitstop to see his mother in the dowdier environs of Oxnard – a stop-off town just west of LA on Highway 101. All the details that embellish this sequence speak so much for the dichotomy of sadness and deceit that hangs over Miles. There is almost a shame about the way he pops in on his aged mother. First, he doesn’t actually inform Jack they’re taking the detour but simply pulls off the highway suddenly. Miles is then seen writing his mother’s birthday card and sealing the envelope while walking frantically from the car to her house. Then the way he slumps down on the sofa and decides to submit to his mother’s offer of dinner suggests a man only too happy to slip back into the creature comforts of the stunted man-child. Later, while Miles’ mother and Jack are chatting away outside, Miles peels away upstairs to pull a stunt only a young teen would do: rooting through his mother’s drawers to find the old soap powder tube that contains a few rolled up banknotes. The suggestion is that Miles doesn’t necessarily need the money per se, it’s more that he has slipped back into a regressive, time-honoured domestic routine. In the midst of this theft, Miles plaintively catching sight of a photo of his younger self and his deceased father puts the seal on this most clever, poignant and allusive of scenes.
Payne in more condescending mode would have turned the sequence into a farce and Miles’ mother into a caricature, but her marginal eccentricity merely attests to the pathos of a widow getting older, being stuck in an outdated house with its dowdy furniture and Lladro ornaments, and having a son who sneakily drops in, takes food and sustenance, then leaves before the rest of the family arrives. This is Payne at his most dexterous and empathetic, and is ample reason why – when on his game – he is still one of the finest American filmmakers around.