At the center of Alexander Payne’s moral vision stands the Little Human Being. His clever, contemporary comedies—most recently About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendents—are sympathetic to human fragility and yet not sentimental, honest about moral weakness but not cynical.
The first and best example of the Little Human Being is the biblical hero Job. Described as the “greatest of the men of the East,” Job is wealthy and prominent—in other words, not little at all. However, when stripped of all that he has, he embraces smallness. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,” he laments, “naked I shall return.”
When tested, Job does not revolt. He realizes that to curse God would not restore his stature. When his friends attempt to coax him into a false submission to God as a way to reclaim his lost life, he holds his ground. His life may be small, painfully so, but it is his own. Thus, in the first act, Job is small, laid low in the divinely superintended order of things. In the second, he is small but paradoxically large, holding fast to his integrity when his life seems to count for nothing.
Payne’s films are Jobean. They hold individuals up for our inspection and put them through ordeals designed to test their genuineness, to determine what about them is real and durable. They examine ordinary people who lead lives of quiet desperation.
About Schmidt (2002) begins on the final day of Schmidt’s long career as a company man with a leading insurance firm. Schmidt is the very paragon of respectability. Unlike his young, glib successor, Schmidt (played by Jack Nicholson) is a careful and conscientious actuary. He drives a big car, has a modest, well-appointed home in a nice neighborhood, and lives peaceably with his wife of forty-two years. A new Winnebago waits in the driveway to bear the couple along in their golden years.
Yet Schmidt is unhappy, having gone through the motions for decades. His wife dies suddenly after he retires, and he is forced to live without the old props and cues. Thus abandoned and reduced, he must assume responsibility for a life that he inherited from himself. Attempting to assert his will, he decides to drive to Denver in the Winnebago to prevent his daughter from getting married to a sensitive waterbed salesman with a ponytail.
The main character of Sideways (2004), Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), is a writer and wine connoisseur who is smart, sensitive, and decent. But he is also a failure: a lonely, divorced middle-school English teacher on various anti-depressants who cannot get his pretentious and ponderous novel published. His best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a washed-up actor determined to make the most of his last week of bachelorhood. Miles takes Jack to wine country the week before Jack’s wedding: Jack plays the irrepressible id to Miles’s stressed and conflicted ego. Miles is disgusted by Jack’s unrestrained hedonism but too fearful and cynical to pursue a genuine romance of his own with a lovely woman he has met.
There is not much hope for Schmidt and Miles. Both characters seem existentially overmatched. They are not valiant underdogs fighting with purpose and moral clarity. They are men struggling to retain purpose, dignity, and relevance in lives from which they have long withdrawn their hopes and best energies. Both arrive at crucial junctures only to find that they are smaller and their lives less meaningful than they had realized.
The temptation for those reduced by misfortune or cut down by circumstance is to exercise the will. At such times, people often seize the moment, slip the bonds of fidelity, and defy conventional roles in the hope of finding larger, reinvigorated selves.
Transgression, however, does not pay off in Payne’s films. The failures of his characters are funny not only because of Payne’s deft comedic touches. They are also funny because the audience recognizes that the moral order his characters intend to violate is not holding them back; it is holding them up. When they transgress, they create awkward situations for themselves and others. They suffer loss, disgrace, heartache—and facial injuries, a quirky signature of Payne’s films.
In the end, Payne’s protagonists come back to themselves and their moral commitments. Sideways and About Schmidt arrive in memorable ways at an important truth: Whatever hope lost and broken people may have lies not in transgressive self-assertion but in a chastened, sober sense of self.
In his most recent film, The Descendants (2011), a likeable, successful attorney named Matt King (George Clooney) lives in paradise. He and his cousins are heirs to a 25,000-acre parcel of pristine shoreline that has come down to them from their Hawaiian ancestors. King is the executor, and he must decide whether to sell the land to developers, a lucrative option favored by his relatives, or fight to keep the land. The beautiful Hawaiian setting serves only to sharpen his experience of grief, estrangement, and dysfunction.
King’s trial and diminishment come quickly. As the film opens, we learn that his wife, Elizabeth, has fallen into a coma as the result of a boating accident. He learns from his daughter that his wife had been carrying on an affair with another man when the accident took place. Family and friends look on as King, the clueless, disengaged husband and father, is forced to keep his family together. King is thus tested in two ways: as a steward of the land that has come down to him and as a steward of his own family, which, at the start of the film, is poised to unravel.
Uncertain and perplexed, King seems likely to fail these tests. Slowly, though, he gains clarity about one thing. He recognizes that he is one of a long line of descendants stretching back to Hawaiian royalty. And the line itself is small compared to the age, vastness, and beauty of the land. As it does for Job, whose reduction forces him down to the smallest point of his own faith in God, smallness serves as a point of moral reference for King. He realizes that he is a steward: The land is not his to sell. He turns down the developers.
The same sense of smallness also allows King to keep his own family together. Families are precarious endeavors, and the love that holds them together is fiercely particular. For him to keep his family intact, he must hold the little patch of ground that only he, as husband and father, occupies. If circumstance dislodges him, or if resentment and the inability to forgive cause him to withdraw from the family, he orphans his daughters. To prevent this, King fights to remain loyal to Elizabeth, the wife who betrayed him, the woman who can no longer return his love.
In a breathtaking scene near the end of the film, after all that he has endured, King says good-bye to his unconscious, dying wife with deep affection and miraculous tenderness. As he kisses her with tears of repentance and forgiveness, Payne shows us the paradox of smallness. We are never stronger than when we forsake ourselves; we are never taller than when, with Job, we bow in humility. As Dostoevsky said, “loving humility is marvelously strong.” He who chooses love’s humility “may subdue the whole world.”
At the ending of the film (not found in the novel on which the film is based), King sits down to watch television with his daughters after Elizabeth has died. In a simple yet touching scene of togetherness, they share ice cream and sit together under the quilt once used to cover Elizabeth in the hospital. They are watching a documentary about the emperor penguins of Antarctica. For the species to survive, the fathers must endure extreme hardship to protect the chicks when the mothers are gone. They shield and incubate their young with their bodies for months, standing in the same place and forgoing food and warmth for themselves. By the end of the film, King, the descendant of emperors, has learned the way of the penguin.
He has come, like Job, to see that he has only a modest place in the order of things. Yet it is not an insignificant one. A man must be large enough to inhabit his own particular life. To do so worthily, to suffer patiently, and to forge with one’s life a strong link in the chain of descendants may be a little thing—but it is no less honorable, no less noble for being small.
Michael C. Legaspi teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.