Saturday, November 19, 2011

Whose comeback excites you more?

I knew I was slipping when one of the movies I'm looking forward to most this fall -- The Descendants -- hit theaters without me even knowing it.

Perhaps because it's got Oscar aspirations, I assumed a December release date -- you know, about the time when George Clooney's Up in the Air became available two years ago. (Clooney did not direct Up in the Air or The Descendants, but he appears in both.) But it actually hit theaters here in Los Angeles on Wednesday, a fact I discovered, oh, the previous Sunday. So much for getting myself psyched up for it over the course of a couple weeks. Now I can and will go see it this weekend.

The reason The Descendants excites me and so many other film fans is not that it features Clooney, but rather, that it marks the long-awaited feature return of writer-director Alexander Payne. Payne had the most acclaimed movie of his career (Sideways) and then promptly went into a seven-year period of inactivity.

Oh, Payne has done things since 2004. He's had a bunch of producing credits, and I was shocked to learn just now that he was one of four credited writers on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. (Which I haven't seen, but can I just assume it's bad and move on?) He even has a directing credit, having contributed the memorable closing piece to the otherwise forgettable collection of short films called Paris Je T'Aime. But a director with Payne's heat after Sideways should have directed at least two features since then, not zero. Woody Allen has directed like eight features since then.

The one time I intended to look into Payne's absence more seriously in order to write about it on The Audient, I didn't get very far in terms of finding a smoking gun. He did divorce from Sandra Oh, who appeared in Sideways, during that time. But that's not exactly unusual territory for Hollywood types, and they usually keep working right through it.

But Payne is not the only beloved director making a comeback of sorts this fall. The great Cameron Crowe is also directing his first feature since Elizabethtown crashed and burned in 2005. In fact, this will be only Crowe's second feature in the past ten years. I guess 2001's Vanilla Sky, a polarizing film that I happened to love, did more to hurt him professionally than I like to admit. Like Payne, Crowe has not exactly spent the intervening years eating bon bons. In fact, his love of rock n' roll has informed a prolific amount of recent documentary work. Pearl Jam Twenty was a well-liked doco released this fall, and I also see his name associated with a rock documentary called The Union, though I don't know anything about that beyond the fact that a 2011 release year is listed. Oh okay, it's about Elton John and is going to air on HBO starting in January.

So to welcome messieurs Payne and Crowe back to the director's chair, I thought I'd do a little comparison between the two, with the theoretical end result being to determine whether we should be more excited about The Descendants or We Bought a Zoo. (I say "theoretical" because I already know which one I'm more excited about.) On the surface, their careers may not necessarily invite comparison -- many of Crowe's works are informed by nostalgia and popular culture, whereas Payne is much more motivated by the quirkiness of Americana. Still, they are both directors who have made few missteps and have a comparable number of features to their credit. To add to this artificial rivalry I'm creating between them, the two films star buddies George Clooney and Matt Damon, giving the comparison a hint more relevance.

So let's take a look. We'll start with Cameron because he's been around longer.

Cameron Crowe
Age: 54
Total number of features as director (including current): 7
First feature as director: Say Anything ...
Best feature: Say Anything .../Almost Famous (gah, I can't decide)
Worst feature: Elizabethtown
Why we should be excited to have him back: Crowe has a knack for creating a sense of unforced nostalgia in his viewer, even when the subject matter is not overtly nostalgic. For example, when you saw Singles, didn't you kind of think you were already feeling nostalgic for grunge? Certainly this has something to do with his heavy reliance on rock music, which naturally reminds us of the associations we have with that music in our own lives. Crowe's movies are big in a way that doesn't make you feel suffocated by their ambitions. What you might call his most ambitious film -- Vanilla Sky -- likely turned some viewers off because of its dark subject matter, and turned some purists off because it was a remake. Me, I was enthralled by the pastiche of music, memory, states of awakening and existence, joy and melancholy he incorporated into one film. At his best, Crowe has the ability to make films that stay with you for years.

Alexander Payne
Age: 50
Total number of features as director (including current): 5
First feature as director: Citizen Ruth
Best feature: Election
Worst feature: Citizen Ruth (but it's still really good)
Why we should be excited to have him back: Payne is the cinematic equivalent of teflon. Yeah, he's only directed four films that most of us have already seen, and that's a pretty small sample size. But he has yet to make a misstep, and it could be argued that he just keeps getting better and better (if, that is, he didn't make his best film second overall). For awhile I compared him not to Crowe but to David O. Russell, who was making movies in lock-step with Payne and also hadn't make a misstep ... until Russell made I Heart Huckabees and changed all that. Payne's record remains unblemished, and he's got a wicked eye for satire. His career has become increasingly less satirical and increasingly more character-oriented with every film, but each film has a sharp sense of humor as it addresses confused people trying to sort out their lives and relationships. He's also going from more to less rural, as he's traded Nebraska for Santa Barbara and now Hawaii. But with an Alexander Payne film, you know you're getting something that looks deeply into the hearts of human beings while making you laugh, sometimes in spite of yourself.


Although Crowe has made more films that I hold dear, I think that Payne is poised to please us more with his next feature. This conclusion is somewhat unfair, since it's not made in a vacuum -- the early returns are in on The Descendants, and people seem to be through-the-roof enthusiastic about it. But I think I would have said that even three or four months ago, when not that much was known about either film. And I haven't heard any buzz on We Bought a Zoo, but if you can get a gut feeling from a title and a plot alone, my gut feeling is not particularly hopeful. Besides, Payne has at least had a hit in the past ten years -- in fact, he's had two of them. Not the case for Crowe. As I was going through Crowe's wikipedia page, it mentioned that both Vanilla Sky (which I loved) and Elizabethtown ("hate" is a strong word) had Metascores of only 45. Ouch.

Fortunately, going to the movies is not an either/or proposition. Personally, I welcome both of them back, and look forward to what they have to offer me -- starting as soon as this weekend.

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