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Alexander Payne at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 11, 2011. (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Alexander Payne at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 11, 2011. (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

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Alexander Payne's unique take on the battle of the sexes Add to ...

In the annals of American directors, Alexander Payne is unique – no one else has ever fought the battle of the sexes with such heretical disdain for conventional roles. Although his output is slim, Oscar has lavished it with attention: Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004) and now The Descendants have all earned nominations in at least one major category. But it’s not the accolades that set his work apart. Instead, there are two crucial distinguishing factors, and the first is less basic than it might seem – his modern-day settings. He never retreats into the past. This year, of the nine entries on the best-picture list, only his is set exclusively in the present. Payne is concerned, obsessively, with the way we live now.

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And what does he see? Well, that’s the second and most astounding factor. Over and over again, he sees precisely the same sight: the battered figure of the American male. His protagonists in these films are all men and they’re all losers – failed teachers, failed writers, failed husbands, failed fathers, undone not by the economy (money isn’t their problem) but by broader forces of psychological malaise. The symbolism is easy to read. They are their country in its post-Cold War decline, superego and superpower identically bruised.

By contrast, the women are typically strong, dominant, often domineering, always decisive. What emerges in each case is something close to a matriarchy, yet not one a feminist would likely endorse. Here’s why: Payne is an equal-opportunity debunker and, in his social view, both sexes are similarly guilty of lies, deception, adultery and narcissism. It’s just that women do it so much better – saddled with these unmanly schmoes, they’re more aggressive and confident in the pursuit of their self-interest.

That’s a remarkable, and remarkably gloomy, analysis of modern America. In Sideways, Miles the wannabe writer is repeatedly warned by his so-called buddy: “No going to the dark side.” Yet, that’s exactly where Payne insistently heads; in fact, his best film, Election, is also his darkest by far. A clever twist on the high-school genre, it’s a black satire that doubles as a political parable. There, Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister begins as a stalwart teacher and rigorous guardian of all things ethical. Oops, not so rigorous that he doesn’t try to cheat on his wife and rig the election for school president. Problem is, Jim is bad at bad behaviour – he always gets caught.

His nemesis is star student Tracy Flick (a scary Reese Witherspoon), who succeeds everywhere he fails. She has illicit sex with impunity, she cheats with a purpose, she hides her ruthless pragmatism behind a forced smile and sunny clichés. In the end, Jim “loses everything” while Tracy hits the jackpot, a fat job as a congressional aide for a limo-riding Republican.

Her credo is pure social Darwinism – “The weak are always trying to sabotage the strong” – and the fact that the alpha male happens to be a female is entirely characteristic of Payne. You may recall the Kathy Bates character, Roberta, in About Schmidt – large, tough, foulmouthed and predatorily sexual, she’s the queen of the alpha males.

In that movie, the young, pathetic teacher has morphed into the old pathetic Warren Schmidt – played by Jack Nicholson, the once-iconic American male, given a paunch, a comb-over and a wonky back. Warren is long married, and his wife “irritates” him beyond measure even while emasculating him beyond dignity: “For years now, she has insisted that I sit while I urinate.” And sit he does.

As fate would have it, the good woman dies; shortly after, Warren learns that she had cuckolded him with his best friend (a plot trope duplicated in The Descendants). He hits the road, but his only epiphany is his essential worthlessness, news that wouldn’t surprise his strong-willed daughter Jeannie, who’s settling in for a career of running roughshod over her dim-bulb fiancé. Here, the dark ending sees Warren alone and reading a letter from his pen pal, a six-year-old orphan in Africa. The kid has included a crayoned drawing of a stick-figure dad clutching the hand of a stick-figure child. The sad man looks at the hollow man, and weeps.

Bleak indeed, but the darkness is palatable because it’s so damned funny. Everybody gets lampooned in these films. Since no one is fully sympathetic, no one is safe from ridicule. At their best, Payne and his frequent co-writer Jim Taylor are awfully adroit at serving up social tragedies as mannered comedies. Moreover, the tragedy, especially the loser-male scenario, resonates in an era when the supposedly most powerful man on the planet, the American president himself, has come to seem so hapless – Clinton caught with Monica, Bush mired in Iraq, Obama bamboozled by Congress.

Sideways continues the trend, and shifts the setting from Omaha (the director’s birthplace) to California. Like the pioneers frequently alluded to in his work, Payne’s canon has moved progressively westward. There, Paul Giamatti’s Miles is the next ineffectual male on the roster. He’s the smartest of the protagonists but just as unsuccessful – divorced by his wife; rejected by his publisher; drowning his sorrows in a cocktail of Xanax, therapy and pinot noir.

His road trip, through Napa Valley, brings him to the same epiphany as Warren. For both, honesty is a self-lacerating business. Admits Schmidt: “I am weak and I am a failure.” Confesses Miles: “I’m not a writer, I’m a middle-aged English teacher. I’m unnecessary.” So he winds up where Jim McAllister began, in a high-school classroom, and we know where that leads. Sure, the ending is softened by dangling before him the prospect of romantic love; then again, given Payne’s assessment of marriage, we know where that leads, too.

The Descendants pushes farther west all the way to Hawaii, and a paradise that looks hellishly familiar. A descendant of the island’s pioneers, Matt is rich, Matt is a lawyer, Matt is George Clooney for God’s sake, but he’s still another battered American male. He too has a “strong,” “tough” wife; she too dies, but not before cheating on him; he too is an indifferent father; he too has a willful daughter (“exactly like” her mom) who sums him up with unsparing clarity: “You really don’t have a clue.”

This time, though, it’s Payne who capitulates, with his most sentimental outing to date. The final shot puts a smiley face on the concluding tableau in About Schmidt. Out is the hollow drawing; in is the real living deal as parent and child reconcile on a couch, sharing ice cream and a warm comforter. No doubt, Miles would dismiss this picture as he did a so-so glass of wine: “Quaffable, but far from transcendent.”

Still, overall, this cinematic quartet does paint a sobering portrait of the modern domestic condition. Yet don’t despair, guys. Not every man is like these beaten-down protagonists. There is another option, embodied in another type of male who appears in each film: Paul, the jock in Election; Randall, the fiancé in About Schmidt; Jack, the actor in Sideways; and Sid, the boyfriend in The Descendants. Although differing in moral compass, they’re all basically good-natured, laid-back and relatively happy. Alas, they’re also, every one of them, dumb as a post. Painful knowledge or ignorant bliss – that’s quite the masculine menu.

Yes, it’s a unique take on our current affairs and the sexes’ classic battle. In Alexander Payne’s America, strong women make firm choices to rule the roost; the man, that poor schnook, can do little more than pick his poison.

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