Painful Laughter: The Films of Alexander Payne

“I’m so insignificant I can’t even kill myself!” So wails the teacher-hero of Alexander Payne’s Sideways after his novel, entitled ‘The Day after Yesterday’ (“You mean Today?” a sympathetic friend has enquired), has been turned down by a publisher. Payne’s protagonists are invariably ordinary people living lives of quiet (though sometimes raucous) desperation. They might be people we know; they might even be ourselves. With only a handful of movies to his name, Payne has established himself as arguably the most significant American film satirist since the heyday of Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie in the 1970s. His films are rooted in the everyday and observe characters at a crucial crossroads in their lives that leads them into comic yet plausible predicaments. The ensemble playing is invariably a joy; and the technical polish that comes from a trusted team of collaborators is always immaculate. Overall the films display an astringent personality whose humour stings as well as sparkles yet whose endings can ooffer a sense of thoughtful consolation without descending into glib romance or facile optimism. “The young man certainly knows what he wants” said Jack Nicholson after working (superbly) with Payne in ‘About Schmidt’. He certainly does; and he delivers. Alexander Payne’s new film ‘The Descendants’ is also showing in this programme. Introduction and notes on individual films (except short subjects) by Neil Sinyard.

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June 2017
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