Achieving great critical acclaim early in your career sets some high expectations for the work that follows. That certainly happened for Alexander Payne when Election and Sideways were proclaimed as among the best films of their respective decades and recognised at the Oscars.
Cutting his teeth directing softcore films for Playboy, film school graduate Alexander Payne quickly established a reputation for his insightful, darkly funny satires on American society, a filmmaker with a real gift for working closely with his lead actors in crafting memorable, often abrasive protagonists.
Born, raised, and still making most of his films in Omaha, Nebraska, Payne acknowledges in his work that life is tough and people are often terrible examples of their species. That’s not to say that we can’t still laugh at the compromising situations his characters get into, or empathise with and understand why they are the way they are, though. His films can be uncomfortable experiences, but they usually have a lightness of touch and a hopeful outlook in the end.
Though still unmistakably very personal and distinctive films, his more recent projects have inevitably suffered in comparison to his celebrated breakthrough, but there’s still a lot to talk about and compare in his work that wasn’t recognized by the Academy. Based on critical reception and staying power, this is The Film Magazine’s list of all 8 Alexander Payne feature films ranked from worst to best.
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8. Downsizing (2017)
Humanity is rapidly running out of time on Planet Earth due to climate change and overpopulation, so Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is convinced to undergo a revolutionary new procedure to shrink down to 5 inches and join a community of tiny people where everything goes further, forging a close bond with Vietnamese political dissident Ngoc Tran (Hong Chau) in the process.
Most acclaimed directors have one flub, a film that doesn’t quite work. Downsizing is Payne’s. The first act of the film that sets out the big idea sci-fi concept and how it is achieved works well enough, but this is an indulgent, very strangely toned piece that quickly loses itself in its journey up its own out-scaled fundament.
Damon is fine in the everyman role, but Christoph Waltz seriously overplays Paul’s hedonistic playboy neighbour Dusan. And, while it’s not appropriate for someone not of Vietnamese descent to judge how stereotypical or not Hong Chau’s heartfelt, thickly-accented performance is, you could ask for more for her character to do independent of Paul.
Payne’s biggest budget and biggest flop to date is fine in concept, but needed one eye on the bigger picture, a bit of perspective to really work.
7. About Schmidt (2002)
Retiring after 40 years as an insurance company actuary, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) finds himself at a loss with so much time on his hands. Following a sudden bereavement, he travels across the country in a Winnebago to reconnect with his past before the imminent wedding of his daughter to a man he doesn’t approve of.
Jack Nicholson is famous for big acting, so it’s refreshing to see him doing something fairly restrained with About Schmidt, his final Oscar-nominated performance before he retired. Warren is a prickly curmudgeon who thinks he knows best and is given to rant excessively about the world and everyone in it to himself and in letters to the Tanzanian boy he is sponsoring through a fostering charity, but the film thankfully doesn’t manufacture a full personality transplant for him at the end of his multiple-state-spanning journey down memory lane.
This film, from a screenplay written immediately after Payne graduated film school, took over a decade to come to fruition, and has a slight feeling of a long-gestating, difficult passion project. There’s still plenty to recommend here, from the low-key comic set pieces involving Nicholson trying not to make too much of a scene to Kathy Bates as the over-familiar hippy mother of the groom, but the two hour-plus runtime does admittedly meander.
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