Alexander Payne Movies


“Call Alexander Payne movies slight if you must, but the man has an uncanny knack for tackling the human condition with complexity and honesty, levity and sadness.”

That’s how I opened my review of The Descendants almost two years ago to the day I’m writing this, and my opinion of Payne’s movies hasn’t changed a lick. If anything, I appreciate his work more today than I did in 2011.

Like the fine wine Virginia Madsen’s Maya so achingly describes in Sideways, Alexander Payne movies (mostly) get better with age. His satire is particularly noteworthy in this respect. Whereas a lot of movies like Election are “one-hit wonders,” i.e. they’re fun the first time around but aren’t rewarding on a revisit, Election works the opposite way. It bites and stings in a way that’s uncomfortable the first time you watch it, but every time you go back, you’ll find more to appreciate about it.

Of course, more recent Alexander Payne movies have stepped away from the satirical elements that defined his first two efforts as a director. Starting with About Schmidt, Payne began working in this hybrid comedy/drama that’s not at all like the quirky indie “dramadies”—Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, (500) Days of Summer—that some find quite grating. Whatever your take on those films, however, you have to recognize that Payne is doing something more interesting and more challenging. He’s an actor’s director who doesn’t (usually) take the easy way out in his films.

Alexander Payne Movies

Citizen Ruth

A drug-addict gets pregnant and suddenly finds herself in the middle of the great abortion debate.

(1996, 0 viewings)

The only Payne film I haven’t seen is available to stream on Netflix, so I don’t have any excuse not to finish the man’s filmography soon.


A high school teacher becomes personally involved in a class election, which throws the entire school into chaos.

(1999, 3+ viewings)

For all the great humanism of Payne’s later efforts, he’ll likely never top this great film with its stinging satire. It look me a few viewings to truly come around on Election. In fact, the first time I watched it, I found it a bit unbearable. Not so anyone. Few films make me laugh the way this one does. Banality, it seems, knows no limits when it comes to rural high school politics.

About Schmidt

In the wake of his wife’s death, an unfulfilled elderly man hits the road in order to make his estranged daughter’s wedding.

(2002, 1 viewing)

It’s a dramatically different movie than Election, and it took Payne one film to completely work out the kinks in his hybrid comedy/drama approach. About Schmidt is nice and anchored by a great Jack Nicholson performance, but there’s a reason its lost among this man’s great filmography: it’s surrounded by stuff that’s flat out better than it.


Just before Jack gets married, he and Miles take a vacation in California wine country.

(2004, 3 viewings)

Payne’s first real taste of Oscar came for this brilliant trip-from-hell movie featuring—among other things—one of the loveliest monologues in movie history, as far as I’m concerned. Virginia Madsen delivers it, and she’s tremendous. So are the others in this four-person ensemble—Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, and (especially) Paul Giamatti. A seriously outstanding movie.

The Descendants

Hawaiian land baron Matt King learns his wife was cheating on him after an accident forces her into a coma. (Click here for my full The Descendants review.)

(2011, 2 viewings)

Those lingering concerns you brushed aside after your first viewing of The Descendants—the predictable character arcs, the clunky set-up, the cheap laughs at the expense of honest emotion—they’re amplified the second time around. I’m not ready to say The Descendants is a bad film. It still has a lot going for it including one of George Clooney’s very best performances, but I’m genuinely scared to see what my opinion would be if I watched it again.


A father and son make their way from Montana to Nebraska so the former can claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize.

(2013, 0 viewings)

A film that hadn’t registered much on my 2013 Fall Movie Preview has become one of my most-anticipated for the rest of the year. It was received somewhat lukewarmly at Cannes, but the fall festival circuit breathed new life into Payne’s latest, at least from a critical perspective (it’s still the same movie, of course).

Whatever the reasons, I hadn’t been terribly excited for Nebraska, but I’m very much so today. Why I doubted Payne I’ll never quite understand.

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