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The return of Alexander Payne

In 'The Descendants,' another quirky film in his unusual career, the director examines ordinary life in the extraordinary setting of Hawaii.

November 13, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • "The Descendants" director Alexander Payne.
"The Descendants" director Alexander Payne. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Hanalei, Hawaii —

It was precisely the kind of day that drives Hawaii's $10-billion vacation business. The sun sliced through the clouds along the coast of Kauai, a windward breeze blowing across the bay as children played in the warm ocean waters. Alexander Payne couldn't help but notice the spectacular setting, but as he directed a key scene in "The Descendants" in spring 2010, his cameras were aimed on a far less idyllic sight: a man looking for redemption.

Even though every minute of "The Descendants," opening in limited release Wednesday, unfolds in the Hawaiian islands, there are no luaus, no hula dancers and no surfing competitions in Payne's adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' obscure but well-reviewed novel of the same name. As in his other tragically comic films — "Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" — Payne's interest rests squarely on the common problems of ordinary, frequently overwhelmed people, and Matt King, a lawyer and soon-to-be single father in "The Descendants," is an exemplar of the filmmaker's humanist preoccupation.

When the film opens, King's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is in a coma after a boating accident. Her brain injury prompts an existential crisis in King (George Clooney), who has been absent from his family's life. Neglected by her husband, Elizabeth has had an extramarital affair with a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and King is similarly estranged from his daughters, the wayward Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the brokenhearted Scottie (Amara Miller). "I'm the backup parent, the understudy," King confesses in a voice-over. Suddenly handed a starring role in his own life, he quickly realizes he doesn't know any of the lines.

King is determined not only to become an engaged father but also a better person, which has brought him to Hanalei Bay in search of Speer, whom he ultimately finds running along the beach, the scene Payne was filming that March day. Any number of movies would have the cuckolded King pummel Speer, expose his dalliance to his family and stomp off with some imagined victory.

But Payne said that what drew him to "The Descendants" was that King tracked down his wife's lover for a selfless reason: so that Speer could return from Kauai to Oahu to say goodbye to Elizabeth before she dies.

"Of course he wants to kill the guy, but this is the right thing to do — an act of love," Payne said after he filmed the sequence. "I thought that was beautiful, and it intrigued me: Love when you don't want to, love when it's very difficult. That's what made me want to do it."

In many ways, the finished sequence in Speer's beachfront bungalow is classic Payne, weaving this way and that with unexpected tonal shifts. "It's like a coming-of-age film, but the person who is coming of age is a 50-year-old guy," explained Clooney, who hoped to be cast (but was passed over in favor of Thomas Haden Church) for Payne's "Sideways." "There's a much different kind of vulnerability to this. This is a character who loses almost every argument," said the actor, who for the first time since 1996's "One Fine Day" has a starring role as a parent.

"He finds love and forgiveness by accepting his role in his failures," Clooney said, relaxing between takes by playing football with the cast and crew. ("Make sure you say he rarely throws a tight spiral," Lillard said, tossing the ball back to his costar.)

Like many memorable moments in Payne's previous films, the meeting between King and Speer is untidy. It's both amusing and bracing, conciliatory and confrontational. And it's a scene Payne, one of Hollywood's few remaining true auteurs, was not originally supposed to direct.

A self-guided journey

Payne hasn't made a movie since 2004's "Sideways," his popular road movie about friendship and Pinot Noir set in California's Central Coast. Since then, the 50-year-old filmmaker directed the pilot for television's "Hung" and a segment for the episodic feature "Paris, Je T'Aime," wrote on the Adam Sandler comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry" and produced "King of California." Yet his next movie proved elusive.

For three years, Payne, writing partner Jim Taylor (with whom Payne shared the adapted screenplay Oscar for "Sideways") and producing colleague Jim Burke developed "Downsizing," an original idea for a satirical comedy about scientists who shrink themselves to 4 inches tall. Their environmental utopia — imagine how many people one ear of corn could feed — turned out to be a visual effects and budgetary nightmare. Said Burke, "How do you make it look real so you're not taken out of the movie?"

Payne said the project was further threatened by Hollywood's recessionary caution. "Everybody is going to use the global economy to justify their traditional stinginess," he said. "I realized 'Downsizing' would be a little bit of a long road."

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