Fight Club: Payne vs. Reitman

up in the air

Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott

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A few days ago I took a look at the awards contenders yet to play in the UK. In order of release, the suspected few (mainly based on festival performances and US critical reception) are primarily American Hustle, All is Lost, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Dallas Buyers Club, Labor Day and The Momuments Men.

What struck me as interesting was that, as we look at it from this point, there’s Nebraska (released just over a week go) and Labor Day (Feb 2014) potentially competing for glory, and basically bookending the challengers. It also pits two of my favourite directors, Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman – comparable in many ways – against each other… and it’s not for the first time, either.

Ignoring shorts and Payne’s first film (Citizen Ruth), they’ve both made four with the fifth now arriving. Not only have they been creating similarly styled indie comedy-dramas, but they’ve largely done it whilst competing against each other. It’s been an interesting journey for both men, so with their similarities and differences in mind, let’s take a closer look.

Film #1: Election vs. Thank You for Smoking

Payne’s first big film was in 1999 and he’s slowly added four more. Reitman, on the other hand, has consistently and rather quickly created five films in the past ten years, starting in 2005.

You can see why there’s an easy link to be forged between the two given the way that they respectively started – with biting satires on politics and business – and these early efforts are right up there with their best to date.

Election parodied real-life rat races, taking its story from a genuine occurrence in small-town America, with a look at a fiercely-contested high-school presidency contest-turned-scandal.

Thank You for Smoking – possibly owing a small debt to Payne’s low-key gem – does much the same but with its particular target being big tobacco and its associates.

The Verdict: I’m quite a big fan of Election – particularly after re-watching it – and Reese Witherspoon is devilish as the unappeasable Tracy Flick, but Thank You for Smoking really is note-perfect. It’s a wonderful example of dancing the fine lines of parody just right, with Aaron Eckhart delivering a wicked performance as loveable monster and father, Nick Naylor. A narrow victory for Reitman, but two superb ‘debuts’.

Film #2: About Schmidt vs. Juno

About Schmidt was released in 2002, and is certainly Payne’s most forgotten about film (post-Election). Whilst not on the same level as his better efforts, it’s still a well-constructed road movie with Jack Nicholson’s retiring Schmidt attempting to cope with life on his own.

The merits of 2007’s Juno on the other hand, are well-documented. Personally I have no problem with the Sorkin-esque level of intelligence afforded to the eponymous youngster (though some do), and go along with the consensus that it’s a pretty great coming-of-age tale about responsibility with a rather excellent offbeat cast.

On the whole, then, About Schmidt is quite possibly better than many remember, but Reitman’s Juno is a very good follow-up to an excellent debut. Another win, 2-0.

Film #3: Sideways vs. Up in the Air

Payne’s third film came soon after, released in 2004. Sideways is now looked upon as his best film by many (fighting Election for that mantle), including myself. It’s a joyous portrayal of a witty yet melancholic odd-couple road trip, surpassing About Schmidt. Though Giamatti’s character is the main attraction, Thomas Haden Church excels opposite. A sweet, powerful film that possesses intelligence, poignancy and, like all good things, plenty of wine.

However, Reitman’s Up in the Air (2008) came as a genuine pleasant surprise. It introduces Anna Kendrick in a dramatic role alongside Clooney and Vera Farmiga, both of whom convince as focused, career-driven individuals with no time (or desire) for familial commitments. It inverts expectations rather nicely and is a smart, slick, visual treat from Reitman – three rather splendid films in a row at this point.

Alongside the film #1 battle, it’s the toughest decision for sure. Up in the Air is pretty great but loses out – just like Election – through little fault of its own. Sideways and Thank You for Smoking are the best films of the respective directors, so it’s impossible to look past them here. 2-1.

Film #4: The Descendants vs. Young Adult

Alexander Payne then took seven years to make another film, kindly giving Jason Reitman a chance to catch up. In fact, only a week separated their US releases, with both The Descendants and Young Adult in cinemas throughout December 2011.

My initial impression of Payne’s Descendants was that it was fine – easily watchable, enjoyable for sure – but was missing something a little deeper that his previous three films (including Schmidt) all exhibited. It also appeared to have minor problems in its plot as an adaptation with competing themes.

Young Adult, however, puts things into perspective. Diablo Cody takes the sole writing credit for only the second time in a Reitman film (after Juno) and, on this occasion, makes a right mess of it. She and Reitman create a wholly unlikeable protagonist and demonstrate how difficult it is to get the balance of these films, particularly their tone, just right.

After three high-quality outings, Reitman flops pretty badly this time. He produced a film which I have no intention of revisiting (it seemed borderline nasty at times) whereas Payne’s Descendants is a better watch on second viewing, opting for all-out emotion over a social commentary of sorts. 2-2.

Film #5: Nebraska vs. Labor Day

And so with the score tied and the filmmaking synchronisation still intact, who’s to win the next context? Nebraska is out to rave reviews (though a weak box office) in the UK and Labor Day (American spelling, not mine) is to follow in a couple of months, with both glancing towards the awards.

In fact, Nebraska has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture (comedy/musical) and Best Director, whilst Kate Winslet’s Best Actress nod is the sole selection for Labor Day. However, perhaps her and Josh Brolin’s inclusion in the film will allow it more mainstream success than Nebraska, which decided on an understated cast instead.

These early indicators somewhat mirror the records of the two in awards season, with Payne winning a couple of Academy Awards, a couple of Golden Globes and a BAFTA. Reitman’s not yet won an Oscar (although he has been nominated twice), but does have a Globe and a BAFTA statue to gaze upon. As it happens, every single win for both guys has been for writing (either original or adapted screenplays) rather than direction, yet recent hits such as Up in the Air (Reitman) and The Descendants (Payne) have been nominated for the coveted Best Picture Award at the biggest ceremony of them all.

Whether awards are your thing or matter is another discussion altogether, but both directors – as indie as they supposedly come – have demonstrated their abilities to adapt in every way possible: they can work with stars or smaller names, with big budgets or without, with their own material or somebody else’s source, and have delivered films that are approaching greatness (a couple of them comfortably attaining it) on almost every occasion.

Irrespective of what kind of films they continue to make – with an apparent divergence at play in this fifth release of each director – let’s just hope they continue at the same standard as the previous lot.

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