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The Science of Failure in the Films of Alexander Payne

Written by on April 12, 2016 

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Following his small-scale, black-and-white drama NebraskaAlexander Payne has jumped to something with quite a large scope. He’s finally underway on production for what’s his biggest film yet, the Matt Damon-led sci-fi drama Downsizing, which is a social satire depicting a man who believes he’ll have a better life if he shrinks himself. Ahead of the shoot, Payne discussed his choice for a leading man. “Among contemporary leading men he is the closest thing we have to an Every Man. We saw it in The Martian particularly. More and more he is assuming the role that say James Stewart and more recently Tom Hanks used to play. At least you can relate to the guy and you can project some of your own fears, yearnings, aspirations onto his face. You understand him,” the director recently told Leo Adam Biga, author of a book on Payne.

He continues, “There are many contemporary American stars with whom I don’t have that relationship. I can’t project any of my vulnerabilities or fears or aspirations onto their faces. But on Matt Damon’s, I can, and he’s kind of the only one we have at that upper level. We don’t have Dustin Hoffman as a young man any more, or Al Pacino or Jack Lemmon or James Stewart. Other people can disagree with me and say what about this one or what about that one but really among the upper echelon of contemporary American movie stars Matt Damon comes the closest to being our Everyman.”

While we won’t see the film until December 2017 thanks to the hefty amount of visual effects work required, we do have a new video essay to celebrate the filmography of Payne. Coming from A Thousand Words, it takes a look at how Payne conjures the science of failure across his protagonists. “Many view the tone and theme of Payne’s work as grim or dour, but my video argues that the theme of failure is a catalyst for ultimately positive self-examination in his films,” he notes, stating, “Payne truly is truly one of the masters of balancing comedy and tragedy in movies.” In one the best sections, it shows how Payne excels at voice-over where something like the theatrical cut of Blade Runner fails.

Check out the video essay below.

What’s your favorite Alexander Payne film?


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