“I had been sitting on this Nebraska script even when I did Sideways,” writer-director Alexander Payne said in May 2013. “But I didn’t want to go back to a road-trip movie right after that. I was really tired of shooting people in cars. It’s a drag” (qtd. in Alexander). Despite these misgivings, the filmmaker returns, again and again, to road trips. Recurring throughout Payne’s work is the idea of a pivotal physical pilgrimage that doubles as a journey of self-discovery for his typical protagonist, a damaged but basically good person riddled with unease and inner disenchantment.
In About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), and most recently Nebraska (2013), Payne cannot help but place his characters on physical, psychological, and emotional journeys, ones that might not have a clear destination but which will take the protagonists—and the viewers—to completely unexpected places. More often than not, origin and destination merge, and the characters end up where they had started; they return home, whether that is symbolized by an actual location or by family connections or romantic relationships. The writer-director utilizes the dynamics of the road movie not to express the more common theme of a yearning for escape, but instead to emphasize the psychological primacy of belonging, establishing and—significantly—accepting one’s true home.
In dealing with his protagonists, the director searches above all for simplicity of expression and feeling, seeking to imbue his works with a sense of authenticity and provide an accurate representation of life. He returns to the specifics of his own Midwestern experience in order to find something universal, transcendent, and noble in the mundane and the everyday. In short, he is a humanist. “If it seems a touch hyperbolic to call Alexander Payne the last humanist filmmaker working in today’s Hollywood,” Scott Foundas writes in Film Comment, “surely he is one of an endangered species: a humble practitioner of smart, grown-up movies about ordinary men and women, their sizeable failings and modest victories. An exotic specimen, he roams the depopulated landscape where the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, Leo McCarey, and Billy Wilder once stood” (24). In a cinematic environment populated by sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and tentpole films of other varieties, Payne reaches beyond the artifice to create something that is solid and unassuming, special without the use of special effects.
The director is what Martin Scorsese calls a smuggler. Working within established genres, making commercial movies, he stealthily manages to slip in a secret cargo of personal preoccupations (Talbot). “He is that rare accolade-worthy filmmaker who speaks to both the art-house crowd and the popcorn-munching masses” (Wloszczyna). His films have been financed by major studios; most of them have made money; they have starred big-name, A-list actors; they have been nominated for, and won, Oscars. But at the same time they are small, personal projects, bearing the fingerprints of an auteur with a deeply humanist bent.
Making small, modest, and humorous films, Payne insists, should not be a rarity or an achievement; it should be the norm. “It shouldn’t be an epic aspiration to make simple human stories, but it is,” he says. “It’s my hope that we’re getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it” (qtd. in Hochman). The filmmaker is undeniably learned and witty, but his films don’t particularly rely on sophisticated banter. Instead, his point of reference is always what would happen in real life, not what would happen in a movie. Like Jim Jarmusch or painter Edward Hopper, Payne finds beauty and poetry in the most unlikely of places, investing the ordinary and the everyday with mystery and charm. “I can’t stand that something must be made more beautiful to be worthy of being photographed on 35mm film going at 24 frames per second,” he admits. “It’s ridiculous. I remember in Schmidt, we had a crowd scene, and the costume people, before the camera rolled, removed lint from some of the extras and straightened their hair, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ More and more, movies are simplified or denuded or prettified in some way that makes them much less than what they could be” (qtd. in Hochman).
Payne’s characters, like their dialogue, environment, and lives, are never simplified, denuded, or prettified. He is interested in capturing not the audience’s sympathy, but its interest. “There’s a bizarre insistence [in Hollywood] on how a story should be,” the director complained. “‘The protagonist must be sympathetic!’ they say. Whatever that means. I never engage in that discussion. I never use that word, ‘sympathetic.’ I just know ‘interesting’” (qtd. in Hodgman). If anything, the filmmaker tries to make his protagonists and their lives as complex and real as possible, regardless of how “pretty” or “sympathetic” their stories are.
Just as an example of the filmmaker’s mind at work, in Louis Begley’s 1996 novel on which About Schmidt, Payne’s deliberately slow-paced but insightfully moving portrait of a life’s third act, is (loosely) based, main character Albert Schmidt is a man of privilege and position, a recently retired attorney from a top New York law firm, drifting towards old age with grumpy stoicism in a luxurious house in the Hamptons. His daughter is engaged to an ambitions junior partner at the firm. Payne called his Schmidt Warren, moved him from Manhattan to Omaha, Nebraska, made him an executive at a medium-sized insurance company, and provided an unambitious Colorado water-bed salesman for the fiancé. It is both curious and obvious that a simple change of geography and profession would have such a transformative effect. “Payne has not simply subjected [the character] to a change of climate, topography and regional mores; he has plucked the unsuspecting Schmidt out of one literary tradition and inserted him into another…. [Schmidt] is the latest in a long line of sad, comical and heroic embodiments of the ordinary man that have, in loneliness, defeat and occasional glory, populated American novels, plays, movies and television shows for much of the past century” (Scott). Payne’s version of Schmidt is cut from the same cloth as Clifford Odets’ and Arthur Miller’s histrionic heroes and John Updike’s lusty, lucky Rabbit Angstrom, all average guys whom our culture both mocks and celebrates. “He is both scapegoat and tragic hero,” the New York Times film critic continues, “martyr and buffoon –an archetype whose manifestations include Willy Loman and Homer Simpson. He struggles and strives, but he can never win” (Scott). Warren Schmidt is not—to say the least—a sympathetic character, but he definitely is interesting.
While the setting of the story, the profession of the character, and many other details of the novel have been changed, its themes of parental disappointment, spousal bereavement and late-mid-life restlessness resonate with force and subtlety in the movie. Schmidt has built his life on false ideals, and, as the props of his career and marriage are tugged away, he is filled with rage and impotence. When we first see the character, in an empty, sterile office, his blue-gray suit merging into the background, he’s watching the small clock high on the wall click away the seconds until the end of his workday. We soon discover this is his last day at the insurance firm, but as he silently picks up his briefcase and coat and slowly walks out of the office, we understand that this is what he has been doing all of his life—watching the clock tick away the seconds until he is free. The name of the firm, “Woodmen,” blazoned on a gray obelisk of a building in a gray sky, makes a not-too-subtle pun on Schmidt’s life. He, himself, is wooden, a man of habits so regular he wakes up two seconds before the alarm. Jack Nicholson, that icon of rebelliousness, is defeated, tamed, trapped, so henpecked that his wife tells him how to pee.
Time and gravity have done startling things to Nicholson’s features. Paunchy, with a turkey-wattle neck, varicose veins in his ankles and a bad comb-over, Schmidt is facing mortality in an empty home. The sardonic wit of the devilish Jack is replaced by the stunned confusion of a man realizing that his life has added up to zilch. Schmidt’s retirement party is a depressing affair. As friends and colleagues congratulate him on his many accomplishments (on having devoted his life to “something meaningful, to being productive, to working for a top company…, to raising a fine family, to building a fine home, to being respected by your community, to having wonderful lasting friendships”), Payne slowly zooms in on his character’s face, and on display are only doubt and regret; in the background, a miniature set makes it clear how small his life has been, reduced to nothing more than window-dressing. In his darkly lit house, the character is framed by confining, narrow halls, an indication that his home is no less of a prison than his office. As a suggestive motif, Payne has Schmidt repeatedly running into cows: photographs of prize steers adorn the walls of the steakhouse where his retirement dinner is held. When he retires, he is put out to pasture, as it were. Later, on the highway in his R.V.—ironically called “The Adventurer”—he passes a truckful of the beasts, bound, no doubt, for slaughter. And at his daughter’s wedding, he takes the floor in a room dominated by an enormous joint of roast beef. And this, the film implies, is the mirror of his own life cycle, in which he is used up, consumed and discarded.
Nicholson does take to the road again, but we are a long way away from Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), or The Last Detail (1973). “His is a horribly real, tragically humdrum journey,” Xan Brooks of Sight and Sound writes about Schmidt. The character driving a Winnebago, he’s alone and nothing comes easy. “About Schmidt… is not about a man who goes on a journey to find himself, because there is no one to find. When Schmidt gets into his 35-foot Winnebago Adventurer, which he and his wife Helen thought to use in his retirement, it is not an act of curiosity but of desperation: He has no place else to turn” (Ebert, “About Schmidt”). There is little to lighten the grotesque sadness of the character. He is a weary salary-man who, as an actuary, knows all too well that he’s nearing the end of his useful days—there is exactly a 73 percent chance that he will die within nine years. Schmidt has nothing to show for lots of years and few accessible feelings about them, apart from fugitive grief and a smoldering rage toward his wife.
The elegiac strain that runs through Payne’s movies, his exploration of the recurrent theme of regret, is perhaps most heartbreakingly evident in About Schmidt. Miles, in Sideways, like Warren, is newly conscious of leading a life that has barely reverberated; Matt, in The Descendants, discovers that he is a stranger to his own family. By the end of Sideways, however, Miles appears ready to get unstuck and fall in love again, and Matt, in The Descendants, connects with his daughters. Schmidt’s future seems much bleaker. “When I was a kid, I used to think that maybe I was special,” he confesses, “that somehow destiny had tapped me to be a great man. Not like Henry Ford or Walt Disney…, but somebody semi-important… one of those guys you read about, but somehow it just didn’t work out that way.” Immediately, he starts making excuses and blaming others.
The main character in Sideways, Paul Giamatti’s failed novelist “who is deeply in love with wine and deeply in hatred with the rest of the world,” is almost as defeated as Warren (Stein and Philadelphia). Every time—and there are many—he says the publication of his book is “not exactly finalized, but there has been some interest,” he is lying not only to whomever his interlocutor happens to be, but, like Warren, he is lying most of all to himself. As Roger Ebert put it, “Miles is not perfect, but… we forgive him his trespasses, because he trespasses most of all against himself.” The first word he utters in the film is a dismal “fuck,” over a black screen as he is woken up in the morning—read mid-afternoon—and his demeanor hardly improves throughout the day or the movie. “
A bumpy detour into the pinot noir-sodden abyss of Santa Barbara wine country,” Sideways is based on the novel of the same name, by a failed filmmaker-turned-failed novelist named Rex Pickett, who, divorced and nearly destitute, poured his own tale of woe into a book initially titled “Two Guys on Wine” (Wloszczyna). The film follows two male fortysomething friends, high-school English teacher and would-be writer Miles and washed-up soap star Jack, as they face up to the surprises and disappointments of a week-long, traveling bachelor party through California’s Santa Ynez Valley in the run-up to Jack’s wedding the following weekend. The film mixes the well-worn cinematic conventions of the road movie and the buddy film, yet “despite the contrived set-up, Miles and Jack aren’t stock comic characters but rather amiable individuals beset by human flaws and foibles and unfulfilled desires, grown-ups adrift in a world they don’t fully understand” (Salisbury). Like Warren Schmidt before him and Matt King after, Miles fits perfectly into Payne’s canon of ordinary, sad men who have reached a milestone in their lives and don’t know how to move forward.
Miles is a perpetual worrier, his friend Jack an easy charmer still trading on his looks and residual fame. While Miles is a true wine connoisseur, his friend, though willing to learn, will taste wine while chewing gum. What keeps this friendship of former college roommates going seems a mystery, though as the film progresses we better understand the psychological underpinnings of the relationship. They’re like two sides of a whole: Jack the sensualist and extrovert, too busy being relaxed to look inside; Miles the introvert and neurotic, too caught up in his own intellect to enjoy himself—together, they make a complete human being. Desperately clinging to the last tatters of their youth, the two wind up stumbling, respectively, into the arms of a divorced waitress and a sexy single mom (played superbly by Payne’s then-wife Sandra Oh). “Sideways is a raucous, booze-and-sex-fueled buddy road movie, but with grown-ups instead of spring breakers, and wine and Xanax instead of Bud and bong hits—sort of a Dude, Where’s My Pinot Noir?” (Rottenberg). That this small-scale study of midlife drift, a film without a single major star, featuring impassioned soliloquies about wine and wincingly awkward romantic encounters was successful is a testament to Payne’s skill turning life’s unspectacular moments into spectacular movies.
The director’s next film, The Descendants, follows another character whose existence of routine has been tipped abruptly from its axis. George Clooney’s Matt has also reached a turning point in his life, and, despite the idyllic surroundings, he’s not any happier or his life any less ordinary. Hawaii has been used in films as a picture-perfect tourist mecca, but the director doesn’t linger on any tropical sunsets; he pushes past the surface beauty because he wants us to see the 50th state as a place where people actually live and raise families and die, real people with real problems, just like those of us stranded this side of paradise. Cool trade winds and gorgeous beaches do not exempt one from the normal disappointments and tragedies of life.
The Descendants signals from the outset that it’s aiming beyond the clichés with Matt’s disenchanted voiceover. “My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii that I’m in paradise—like a permanent vacation, we’re all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves.” It’s exactly this misconception that Payne sets out to dispel. “Are they insane?” Matt continues. “Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful?” These words overlay images not of sunny beaches, acres of unspoiled land, or cocktail-sipping tourists, but shots of ordinary individuals going about their daily toil in Hawaii, just as they would anywhere else. “Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in fifteen years,” Clooney’s character explains. “For the past twenty-two days I’ve been living in a paradise of IVs and urine bags and tracheal tubes. Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.”
Matt’s wife Elizabeth lies unconscious in the hospital on life support, the victim of a waterskiing accident from which, he is informed, she will never recover. A self-confessed hands-off father (“I’m the back-up parent, the understudy”), the character finds himself suddenly called on to engage with two daughters he scarcely knows. And while he’s ineptly trying to fathom their differing emotional reactions to the situation, his elder daughter informs him his wife was having an affair and planned to divorce him.
Matt’s response triggers a classic instance of Payne’s knack for splicing pathos with comedy–or vice versa. Pausing only to grab the nearest pair of shoes, Matt dashes off to visit nearby friends who, he believes, will know the name of his wife’s lover. But the footwear he picks up happens to be plastic deck shoes, totally unsuited for speed, and his genuine distress is undercut by the absurdity of his lumbering, ducklegged run. This is not The Descendant’s only instance in which Payne undercuts the tragedy with comedy. A distraught Clooney making the dorky-looking sprint across his subdivision to her friends’ house in asphalt-slapping slip-ons, is undeniably both a tragic and comic sight, but there are deeper, more subtle moments in which this combination of heartbreak and hilarity is at play. In a later example, Matt’s guilt-ridden anger is heartfelt but at the same time farcical, vented as it is on a woman in a coma.
The Descendants navigates a gauntlet of tricky tonal shifts, turning on a dime from high farce to high melodrama. Margaret Talbot writes in The New Yorker, “His movies shuttle nimbly between humor and sadness, with Chaplinesque pathos often inscribed into physical comedy.” The director’s films hover between sympathizing with his characters and making fun of them. His detractors find him condescending, because he so willingly subjects characters who are not rich or sophisticated or sleek to indignities that prompt viewers to laugh or wince. “But these humiliations are the stuff of everyday life: lost dentures, unsightly bee stings…. He tries to capture human absurdity with affection, not malice” (Talbot). Jim Taylor, Payne’s longtime writing partner says, “We’re interested in people who are both ridiculous and noble in their dedication to what they’re after. We sometimes get ‘Oh, you’re making fun of people.’ Well, we try to remember how ridiculous we ourselves are. And it’s not hard” (qtd. in Talbot).
An avid admirer of silent film—who had, by the age of twelve, bought all of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts with his own money—Payne knows that sometimes the best scenes and most memorable moments in a film, the ones that seamlessly mix laughter and poignancy, can be wordless—Nicholson’s solitary battle with a waterbed in About Schmidt (which would have made W.C. Fields smile) or the coda of The Descendants, with Clooney’s character and his two daughters passing ice cream back and forth on the couch. The filmmaker sees the ability to capture or suggest dreams, rather than just capture reality, as one of cinema’s greatest values. Silent films excelled from the start in fully embracing the weirdness of real life and dreams and how the two can be combined into a story, creating what the director calls “a fuller, weirder totality of human experience.” It is exactly this kind of reality that Payne is after in his own work; he makes the kind of movies that explore the full scope of human emotion and experience, at once satirically and sympathetically. Kaui Hart Hemmings, the author of The Descendants’ source material, the novel of the same name, said of Payne: “His films are usually sardonic and dry, although they also are filled with empathy. But this is the most empathetic of all of them. Just the way he uses his observational skills to show what people are really like—the way they dress, how they speak to each other—brings out the true humanity” (Wloszczyna).
Payne’s comedy can make you squirm because he cuts so close to the bone of middle-class family dysfunction. But the acid satire is balanced by a compassion that saves his movies from cruelty. Even when the filmmaker’s plots are abject, his films are too taken with fleeting moments of kindness or beauty to be altogether bleak. In one unforgettable scene in About Schmidt, the main character comes on to a married woman in a trailer park. She’s seen into his soul, and he’s so moved and aroused that he misinterprets her interest as a sexual invitation. To borrow the name of the film’s setting (Happy Hollow in Omaha, Nebraska), Payne sees both the happy and the hollow and ends up articulating “a distinctly Midwestern existentialism: deep ennui charmed by a paradoxical, unrelenting optimism” (Hodgman). We laugh at the woman’s exaggerated cheeriness and her pop-psychology jargon, but all her perceptions about Schmidt are true, and you can see why he’s drawn to her. This scene is a perfect example of Payne’s uncanny ability to wed hilarity, humiliation and heartbreak in a single moment. The laughs—and there are many—are born out of loss and pain. “The goal of most comedy directors is to make an audience laugh until it hurts, but Payne flips that around: He makes it hurt until you laugh.” (Rottenberg). Payne serves his comedy black, no sugar.
The director strikes a perfect balance between sympathy and satire; deathly afraid of being too sentimental, he believes emotion should be set against a cold background to stand out in relief. This is one of the reasons so many of his films are set in the sparse Nebraska landscape. Under the environment’s deceptively flat surface lies a delayed-release emotional charge that is devastating specifically because of the contrast between the coldness and austerity of the setting and the warmth and humanity of the characterization (Ansen). “Payne is a rare type in American film: a regionalist… He shoots films in neighborhoods that are solid and unassuming, familiar from life but less so from movies.” Setting four of his films in his home state, including About Schmidt, the filmmaker wants to explore the mystery of the place he’s from—“those early buttons, how it haunts you” (Payne, qtd. In Talbot). In the process, he offers a vision of flyover America rarely glimpsed in mainstream movies: Midwestern, middle (or lower) class lives and the bulk groceries, strip malls and economy cars that populate them, some of it played for laughs, but never at the expense of the characters’ fundamental dignity.
Many of the director’s works feature, in smaller roles, locals who have never acted professionally, or at all. Recreating neorealism in the heartland, Payne is determined to have his films look grounded in the day-to-day. “You’re trying to create a real world onscreen,” he explains, “so it’s best to pick from the real world, whether it’s a location or a beat-up old car or a human being. Because it anchors you. The audience can’t do all the work” (qtd. In Talbot). Payne’s familiarity with the everyday flow of life and the details of the Midwestern setting allows him to explore the deeper, less obvious mysteries that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly mundane. In Scorsese’s documentary on Elia Kazan, Payne recalls, Scorsese says that “when he first saw those mugs in On the Waterfront—faces like the ones he grew up around—he felt for the first time as though the people he knew mattered. That rang a bell for me.” (qtd. in Talbot). The ordinary individuals that populate Payne’s films live empty, sterile lives in empty, sterile settings, but Payne convinces us that they do, indeed, matter. In About Schmidt, Omaha feels startlingly, painfully specific, an empty city of watery blues and grays, the blank spot at the center of the map. “It’s as affecting a picture of alienation as you’d find in, say, Antonioni’s L'Avventura—only with fewer beautiful Italian women and more stretch waistbands” (Hodgman).
Schmidt is so lonely he reaches halfway across the globe for companionship. With no one to talk to and incapable of connecting with his family, his only confidant is his unanswering pen pal Ndugu, an 6-year-old Tanzanian orphan Schmidt is inspired to sponsor by a late-night television pitch. Payne’s characters often mire themselves in thickly layered self-justification—to heighten this effect, the director generally employs first-person voice-over. Perhaps nowhere is this device used more brilliantly than in About Schmidt’s voice-over letters, which are often at odds with reality—as when Schmidt advises the Tanzanian orphan to pledge a fraternity when he goes to college—but allow us to overhear the character wrestling with his dawning awareness of the emptiness inside him.
In these long narrated monologues decades of simmering disappointment start to boil, and Schmidt tears apart his wife, his daughter’s choice in men, and his own failed fortunes. Yet even at his barest, he cannot help but pretty up the pain, referring to his daughter’s shipping clerk job as a “position of some responsibility” with a “'high-tech computer outfit.” The fact that he is lying to a six-year-old African kid never enters his mind. He is unable, finally, to express himself except in the aphorisms of business correspondence. “Here I am rambling on and on,” he writes, “and you probably want to hurry on down, cash that check and get yourself something to eat. . . . Best of luck with all your endeavors. Yours, very truly, Warren Schmidt.”
The overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation that Payne’s Nebraskan characters feel seems to match the environment, but the same mood pervades the director’s out-of-state ventures as well. The bleached color palette of Sideways—sunlight burning in every frame—the lyrical camerawork, and jazzy score bring to mind Hal Ashby, but, at the same time, the movie retains Payne’s vision of a lonely, sanitized America. For Miles, wine is a release, a medium in which he can speak with eloquence and superiority. “There was a tasting last night,” he explains early in the movie, on one of those alcoholic mornings that begin in the afternoon and strain eagerly toward the first drink. That’s why he’s a little shaky. He’s not an alcoholic, you see; he’s an oenophile, which means he can continue to pronounce French wines long after most people would be unconscious.
In what is perhaps Sideways’ loveliest scene, Miles, similarly to the conclusion of Warren’s letter, also cloaks his feelings in the jargon that he knows best. When he tells Maya of his fondness for Pinot there’s a welcome ambiguity over whether he is in fact talking about himself: “It’s a hard grape to grow, thin-skinned, temperamental; it ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention… Only the most patient and nurturing of growers can build it really, only someone who takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression…. Its flavors, they’re just the most haunting, and brilliant, and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet. Cabernets can be powerful and exalting too, but they seem prosaic to me by comparison.”
Maya responds with an equally eloquent and impassioned speech on the life of wine, “how it’s a living thing” which continues to evolve, gaining in complexity until it peaks, “and then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.” Her words seem to describe, in wine metaphors, the entire cycle of human life. “And it tastes so fucking good,” she concludes. Most directors would have played the scene as seduction, but Payne strikes a deeper note. He contrasts the characters’ confident expressions of passion for different wines with the hesitation they both feel in letting down their emotional barriers. We suspect Miles and Maya were insecure and lonely people before their spouses left them, and in the aftermath of their loss they have wrapped themselves in protective cocoons.
Sideways begins and ends with insistent hands knocking on front doors, the twin images bookending the film as bittersweet as what comes in between—a search for a home, a place to belong, and a chance to connect with another human being. Miles’s journey culminates at Maya’s front door; he is ready to let his barriers down and begin a relationship. He’s finally made it home.
In The Descendants, Matt doesn’t have to journey far to find his home; he must only look at what he already has—acres and acres of unspoiled land on Kauai that Matt’s family has inherited and must now sell off. Although the focus of the film is on the human characters, Payne isn’t beyond splurging on the island’s natural beauty; in fact, the director gives the “side-story” of the land deal almost as much screen time as the family drama, each narrative thread enhancing the other as the movie evolves into a richly layered consideration of personal and civic responsibility.
In the end, the character cannot sign the virgin beaches over to real estate contractors lining up to build high-class resorts. “I sign this document,” he explains, “and something that we were supposed to protect is gone forever. Now we’re haole as shit, and we go to private schools and clubs, and we can barely speak pidgin, let alone Hawaiian, but we’ve got Hawaiian blood, and we’re tied to this land, and our children are tied to this land.” Matt’s home, his identity, his history and ancestry are tied up in this parcel of land, and, in keeping it, he proudly proclaims that it is his home. Life goes on at the end of the movie, much as it had done before, except Matt has established a place that he belongs to, and, in the brilliant coda, makes it clear that his family will survive this tragedy together. “We have seen such leisurewear [Hawaiian shirts] before,” Anthony Lane writes in the New Yorker, “on Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift, as they toured the local bars, in From Here to Eternity. Both films are infused with the atmosphere of their Hawaiian setting, and its strange compound of chillout and treachery…. Both films conclude, too, with floral garlands cast into the ocean, though Payne provides an aftermath—a delicious downtime, in which Matt and his children sit on the couch with ice cream and watch TV. Death, which has loomed ahead throughout, begins to drift away behind them, and the film completes its journey: from eternity to here.”
The director’s goal, in all of his films, seems to be to bring his characters from eternity to here. His work in About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants reverberates with the power of deeper, universal themes, yet it is grounded in the specific and the commonplace. “Ages from now, when historians recall what the filling of America—the chewier parts between New York and L. A.—once tasted like, they’d be wise to order up the movies of Alexander Payne. It’s not simply that the… director and screenwriter favors setting his movies in Omaha, where he grew up, or that the extras in his comedies look as if they were cast by Dorothea Lange herself. It’s that with his lens, Payne drives straight through Middle America without ever treading the middle of the road” (Hochman). This sentiment applies to all of the filmmaker’s works, in and outside of Nebraska. Without a false note, Payne tells the stories of lonely, ordinary individuals of unassuming backgrounds, convincing you that they matter. At the end of their journeys, his protagonists return to the life they had before embarking on the trip. Everything is the same, but they are different. The sadness and loneliness have given way to a human connection. The characters have found a place they belong, establishing or accepting their true home.