"I don't think about the home where my films will land," says Alexander Payne, free-range in a film culture fenced off into art house and multiplex, to the detriment of both. He describes the audience that he writes for as "My best friends and myself.... Then your luck in your career is that what occurs to you and your best friends as entertaining and interesting also occurs to a significant amount of others that way."
Payne is very, very lucky. The trajectory of his career has been an ongoing parallel rise in box-office success, critical estimation, and final-cut clout, from abortion satire Citizen Ruth (1996) to Election (1999) — much-cited in the 2008 Democratic primaries for its main character's not entirely flattering resemblance to Hillary Clinton — to the twin watersheds of About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004). With the first, Jack Nicholson's participation made Payne a star; by the second, Payne could do the same for Paul Giamatti.
Sitting across the table at La Buvette, a wine store and restaurant in hometown Omaha's Old Market neighborhood, Payne, a trim, well-turned-out 50, the owner of two Federico Fellini sketches "given to me by an Italian Princess who lives in Hawaii," the hometown boy who can go home again, seems a success by any measure. Success has not, though, been his topic.
Payne grew up comfortably in Omaha's Dundee neighborhood, where his parents still live, four blocks away from Warren Buffett, who of course still lives there too. About Schmidt, however, is concerned with another Warren, one unfulfilled, with Future Business Leaders of America pedigree and deferred dreams of entrepreneurship. And though Payne has had a career that most artists would sacrifice their firstborn for, Sideways follows an unpublished novelist whose manuscript receives its terminal rejection as he's touring Santa Ynez Valley wine country. ("It was kind of slight for my tastes," says Payne, happy to denigrate his own accomplishments.)
The Descendants, which opens this week in theaters, features the most prosperous protagonist of Payne's career. Matt King is Hawaiian-landed gentry, the great-great-grandson of native royalty and colonizing bluebloods who now manages the family trust and is currently faced with disposing of 25,000 acres of undeveloped paradise on Kauai to the profit of himself and a coterie of cousins. (The dilemma is how much richer to get.) King is played by George Clooney, who had previously expressed interest in the role of Jack in Sideways, a part that eventually went to Thomas Hayden Church. "I wouldn't believe the most handsome and successful movie actor playing the most washed-up TV actor," says Payne. "I didn't want that to be the joke."
Now Payne has finally cast Clooney — as a handsome, successful failure. As the film begins, King's free-spirit wife lies in a coma after a boating accident. He learns that she will not wake up, that her will stipulates pulling the plug, and that he must actively deal with two daughters for whom he has previously only been the "backup parent," a pushy 10-year-old (Amara Miller) and a wild 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley), brought back from the boarding school gulag.
"Both Schmidt and The Descendants have a protagonist who's reached a point in life, who says 'I've done my job, I've been a good provider' and doesn't realize how distant he's been from others and from himself," says Payne, himself divorced with no kids. Both men are also made madly jealous upon learning of indiscretions by wives now past blame. On the recurrence of infidelity in his work, Payne is tight-lipped: "It seems pretty common, pretty dramatic. Maybe I felt some jealousy early in life, and that's made a mark. Maybe."
The Descendants draws a network of generational masculine rivalries around King — between King and his wife's goading father (Robert Forster); between King and his daughter's tagalong boyfriend (Nick Krause). The viewer sees these men at first as King does: just more burden to bear. Eventually we come to realize, through Clooney's artfully withholding reaction shots, that they are people with private fortitude and sadness all their own.
"To say something bad about someone, to caricaturize someone, but then to go, 'Yeah, but God love 'em,' that might be something particularly Midwestern," Payne says. The harsh initial judgment, followed by the recall of the same judgment, is a signature of Payne's films; my own relationship with his work went through the same recoil and reconsideration.
Where Payne's craftsmanship was always obvious, his warmth seemed more elusive; my Damascus moment was Payne's contribution to 2005 omnibus movie Paris Je T'Aime. Margo Martindale plays Carol, a husky middle-aged Denver letter carrier in tapered khakis and fanny pack, viewed on a vacation to Paris that she narrates in clomping French, as if before an adult education class. There is fun had at Carol's clumsiness — she confuses Simone de Beauvoir with Simón Bolívar, eats at bad restaurants, talks about her dogs in that way that suggests a life of profound lack — but by the time the film concludes, flat caricature has become character. While Carol sits in the Parc Montsouris, her voiceover expresses inchoate feelings within — "at the same time joy and sadness" — conveying a breadth of spirit that we're all certain we have and yet are quick to deny to others.
"If I could say I'm proud of any of my films, I would say that one," says Payne. "I think it does everything in six minutes . . . it's a little line drawing." This proved the key to unlocking Payne's work for me: Whereas once the closing shot of a teary Nicholson in About Schmidt had seemed like money-shot sentimentality, now it felt like the last stroke in that rare portrait to acknowledge its subject's ignoble and sublime aspects, with neither overriding the other.
The Descendants is Payne's first feature in seven years. "It just happened; '05 was a washout, '06, '07, '08, a lot of that time was spent writing a screenplay with Jim Taylor that we haven't made yet. Late '08 I was so anxious to beat up on actors that I did a pilot [HBO's Hung]. And then in '09, I started work on this. It just happened, I don't know where the time went."