Payne, Alexander: Auteur? Road Motifs in his Work

Whether or not they are set on the road, all of Alexander Payne’s films are road movies dealing with journeys of self-discovery.

This was the consistent pattern of the otherwise widely divergent “Citizen Ruth,” “Election, “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways.”

Take “About Schmidt,” the tale of ordinary man (played by the extraordinary Jack Nicholson), an unexceptional American. Scmidt may be a hollow man or a product of attrition of post-modern life. Which came first is up to us viewers to decide.  In the first scene, he sits at his office, waiting for the clock to strike 5pm so that he can leave and go home.

Payne has said that he’s been influenced by the work of Russian playwright Chekhov, including “A Boring Story.”  In his films, workaday rites take on a sacred meaning in stories that are marked by subtly sardonic takes on the mores of the MidWest. The pathos slides away gradually.

Whereas Jack Nicholson is subtle, Kathy Bates and Dermot Mulroney do it broadly in a film whose tonality could be described as Preston Sturges meets Frank Capra by way of Chekhov.

In a brilliant performance, Nicholson puts to use his great voice, narrating in voice-overs the letters he writes to an African orphan, whom he adopted through Television. He captures the ruined pastures of old age, but also the catharsis and redemption that come after suffering. Ultimately, Schmidt’s pain and suffering, manifest in a troubled relationship with his daughter, is light and thus the material of serio-comedic farce rather than tragedy.