Nobody Does Funny/Sad Like Alexander Payne

With his latest film, ‘The Holdovers,’ the Oscar-winning director proves once again that he can make audiences laugh and cry, without ever being sappy about it
Nobody Does Funny/Sad Like Alexander Payne

The characters in The Holdovers are unhappy. They have different reasons for feeling so down in the mouth, but for each of them, the misery is real, accentuated by the fact that the movie is set during the holidays, a time of year they don’t find cheery at all. This superb comedy-drama, which opens in select cities on Friday, could be a depressing affair, but instead it’s often a bitterly funny movie about being in a not-great-place in your life. And once you know that Alexander Payne made it, that ought to seal the deal. Nobody does funny/sad like him.

It’s been nearly 25 years since the two-time Oscar-winner first burst onto the scene. His second film, Election, came out in 1999, a movie year now canonized as one of the best in decades. I’d put his adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel against any other movie of that year: By chronicling the battle between a disgruntled teacher (Matthew Broderick) and a high-achieving high school senior determined to win the class presidency (Reese Witherspoon), Payne created a brilliantly acidic comedy — not to mention a cutting satire of class, middle-aged mediocrity, politics and marriage. I remember seeing Election with a teacher friend, who disliked it because it was “too mean.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I loved it because it felt so true — about high school and life in general.

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Since then, Payne has gone on to make a series of fine films — About SchimdtSidewaysThe DescendantsNebraska — but none of them have been quite as caustic in their humor. Which isn’t to say those subsequent movies aren’t also really funny — it’s just that, over time, his attack has softened, locating the humanity and vulnerability in his flailing characters. His movies still make you laugh, but they’re also out to make you cry.

“I was a teenager in the ‘70s where the protagonists of films were more like normal people,” he explained in 2017 when discussing the realistic nature of his comedy. “Suddenly the standard was how much does our cinema approximate real life, as opposed to provide an antidote to it somehow. So those were always the films I wanted to make. My films aspire to have some sense of realism, at times naturalism, within the commercial American vernacular.”

That quote’s helpful in terms of underlining his fondness for the New Hollywood of the 1970s, which emphasized risk-taking filmmakers and stories about everyday people living everyday lives. But it also suggests why some people can’t stand Payne: “Within the commercial American vernacular” is the kind of phrase that inspires eyerolls. There’s always been something a bit affected about him, especially when he’s discussing “our cinema.” For as plain-spoken as his characters are, Payne sometimes tries too hard in interviews to let you know how smart he is. His manner risks suggesting that he thinks he’s above making “just” comedies — that he aspires to art, which would be silly if that were his impression. Election has terrific sex jokes and is a work of art.  

Blessedly, that elevated air he sometimes gives off is mostly nowhere in sight in his latest film. I say “mostly” because The Holdovers definitely wants you to know that, not only does it take place during the 1970s, it’s also meant to feel like a film from the 1970s. The old-fashioned credits, the faded color palette, the dated camera moves: Hardcore film fans will geek out at the knowing nods to the moviemaking of yesteryear. And, then, of course, there’s the story itself, which is intimate and character-driven the way that beloved ‘70s films were. There’s a lot of Hal Ashby in The Holdovers, which I mean as a compliment. 

But even if that stuff goes right over your head, it doesn’t matter, because Payne mostly wants you to care about the people populating this little universe of sadness he’s constructed. Working with a screenplay from David Hemingson — Nebraska was the only other time he didn’t contribute to one of his film’s scripts — Payne takes us to an East Coast boarding school in 1970. It’s all boys, and one of the longest-tenured teachers there is Paul (Paul Giamatti), who went to the school when he was a lad. 

Paul is not a “Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society” type of instructor, inspiring the youth to seize the day and stand on their desks. Nope, he’s a misanthrope disenfranchised by the amount of idiots he has to instruct. They’re all the spoiled kids of rich parents — not a one of them has any initiative or brains, and that includes Angus (Dominic Sessa), who’s a real smart-ass. During the holidays, when most everybody goes home to their families, Paul discovers he’s been the teacher designated to babysit the students who are stuck on campus. (The reason? Paul has pissed off his superiors with his arrogant attitude.) Paul has no family, no wife, no nobody, so he accepts his fate keeping an eye on Angus. He won’t be entirely alone — the school’s cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is also around — but he has little hope that this will be a joyful yuletide.

There are so many bad versions of what The Holdover could have been that it’s a minor miracle that the actual movie is as good as it is. Never wacky or zany — but also not saccharine or manipulative — The Holdovers bases its humor around the seasonal depression and holiday blues a lot of people experience, Payne constantly locating what’s funny about such shared melancholy. Paul, Angus and Mary are perfect Payne characters because they’re always this close to tumbling into despair, fighting back against the abyss with snide comments and other defense mechanisms. The protagonists in Payne’s earliest films, Citizen Ruth and Election, acted this way, too, but the jokes had more bite to them back then. The Holdovers is very much a latter-day Payne film in that they’re not quite as sharp-elbowed. Paul and his cohorts may be miserable, but they’re not unpleasant company — Payne wants us to love them, because he loves them, too.

That might surprise fans who, when Payne was first making his name, had to constantly defend him from critics who accused him of mocking his characters. In films like Election and About Schmidt, both set in his hometown of Omaha, Payne wasn’t afraid to tweak their Midwesterness — their unassuming, slightly unremarkable essence. Were his barbs mean or playful? Was Payne indicting himself or trying to act superior to his Nebraskan neighbors? Whatever the case, his clear affection has come through of late, and in The Holdovers, he ensures that your heart will break for Paul, Angus and Mary, albeit in very different ways. I don’t want to spoil what gets uncovered, but the twists have never been what matters in Payne’s films — it’s the slow accumulation of understanding that develops between the characters, the way they magically finally find points of reference that connect them. I’m not sure any of his movies have been “uproarious” since Election, but few directors find the humor in ordinary situations and ordinary people as incisively as he does.

Which is why it’s so great he’s reunited with Giamatti, the blocked author going nowhere in Sideways. Paul is a variation on that character — older, bitterer, more desperately clinging to his self-righteousness — but Giamatti again turns that surliness into comedy. It helps that Giamatti almost immediately gets you on Paul’s side: Sure, he’s a pretentious twit, but he’s also right that these bratty kids don’t deserve his expertise in world history, putting the dimwits in place with his withering one-liners. With his resigned eyes and hangdog manner, Giamatti embodies the funny/sad dichotomy in Payne’s movies, that delicate gray area where most of us reside, our senses of humor intact despite the quiet anguish we’re carrying around with us on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, Paul will learn how well-matched he is with Angus and Mary, who are also hiding things they don’t want to share with the world. In less-talented hands, The Holdovers would be a treacly paean to how everyone is going through something — that we need to walk a mile in other people’s shoes. Thank god Payne’s gracefulness doesn’t allow for such lame platitudes. The jokes and comedic set pieces undercut any possibility of bromides — the realness he strives for in his storytelling makes these people seem painfully, hilariously lived-in. As a result, the gradual change that Paul undergoes feels heartfelt, not manufactured — there’s a grit to the humor and the pathos that’s earned. It’s remarkable that Payne manages to walk that line so elegantly, never permitting his characters to become cartoons while getting you to laugh as much as he does. Other comedic filmmakers lose their juice over time — he has not. And he’s only grown more compassionate all the while.

Payne’s last film was Downsizing, the one movie of his that’s generally considered a stinker. It was a commercial failure. It didn’t get good reviews. It also felt the most unlike his other movies: a big-budget sci-fi comedy starring Matt Damon as a regular guy who signs up for a program where you can be shrunk down and live in a miniature community. Downsizing isn’t great, but I think it’s underrated, its missteps not as severe as some would suggest. Still, The Holdover finds him returning to subject matter and a style that feels more in keeping with his best work. He’s downsized his ambitions without losing what’s strongest about his bittersweet point-of-view.

Comedians often move to drama to prove their sensitivity and brilliance — they seek to make you cry in order to demonstrate how deep they are. By comparison, for most of his career Alexander Payne has wondered if humor and drama could coexist, crafting a niche few others operate in. The Holdovers is a film only he could have made. I think you’ll laugh and cry, but because it’s one of his movies, I think you’ll also sigh with deep satisfaction.

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