There is a sense of sad, stoic acceptance at the end of The Descendants that one more closely associates with Japanese than with Western cinema. And throughout his work, Payne returns so consistently to failure that failure seems to be his definition of life itself. In place of triumph, he offers only the possibility of small victories before the final, inevitable loss.

When, over lunch, I observe to Payne that his movies aren't "redemptive," he replies cheerily, "Thank you!" I want him to admit how unique his position is, to have captured such a large audience while expressing such a basically pessimistic worldview. When I press him, though, he always returns with, "Isn't that life?" — as if he can't imagine anyone taking it for anything else. "Look: An elephant dies. All the other elephants stamp" — here he clomps his hands on the table — "and throw dirt around and trumpet" — here he waves his arms to simulate wagging trunks — "and get really depressed." Now he sits still. "And then they move on."

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