Oscar 2011: The Descendants in Payne's Career

Alexander Payne, the brilliant filmmaker (co-writer too) of the Oscar-winning “Sideways,” which was released in 2004, is a “slow” director. In 15 years, he has made only five features, though he has produced or exec-produced TV works (such as “Hung”).

“Citizen Ruth,” Payne’s impressive directorial feature debut, a satire about abortion starring Laura Dern, premiered in the dramatic competition at the 1996 Sundance Film Fest. Unfortunately, the film (aka “Meet Citizen Ruth”) was poorly marketed and poorly released by Miramax, which didn’t know how to promote a comedy about such a hot-button issue as abortion.

Three years later, in 1999, Payne made “Election,” his first and only big-studio (Paramount) feature, which in my humble view, is his most original and most fully-realized work to date. Despite revae reviews, the film was not a commercial success, perhaps because of its complex, multi-structured, multi-voive over narrative and its cynical and ironic tone.

In 2002, “About Schmidt,” boasting a towering performance from Jack Nicholson, world-premiered in competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Fest, and went on to win Best Picture and Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA, of which I am former president and member).

In 2004, “Sideways,” the highly acclaimed serio comedy, took the indie (and Hollywood) world by storm and became Fox Searchlight top-grossing film to date, with over $70 million at the domestic box-office.

To the best of my knowledge, Payne is the only director to have won twice Best Picture from the LAFCA, and within such a short period of time: “About Schmidt” in 2002 and “Sideways” in 2004.

In many ways, Payne’s career is the opposite of that of his contemporary, Steven Soderbergh, who belongs to his generation. A prolific director, Soderbergh has made about 25 features since his stunning debut in 1989, “sex, lies & videotape,” which forever changed the Sundance Film Fest and the American independent milieu.

That said, half of Soderbergh’s film output is underwhelming, to say the least, and to this date, he has made only one film which could be considered truly great, “Out of Sight,” in 1998. I had the pleasure of giving that film its first rave review as a critic for Variety,

The key to Payne’s career is his desire to make “only good movies,” as he had told me in an interview over a decade ago.

Origins of The Descendants

For six years, Payne channelled his energies into the development of the effects-laden epic “Downsizing.” But with the technology still lagging far behind his vision, Payne’s Ad Hominem partner Jim Burke advised the director to reconsider another  project, the family drama “The Descendants.”

Payne turned his gaze toward Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel, and decided to approach star George Clooney, who was waiting for his idling directing vehicle “The Ides of March” to accelerate. Clooney signed on immediately, and Payne’s Hawaii drama began shooting within months.

Set in Hawaii, “The Descendants” is a humorous tale, a serio-comedy about the journey of Matt King (played by George Clooney) an initially indifferent husband and father of two girls, who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki.

The event leads to Matt’s processes of redemption and self-discovery, manifest in his efforts at rapprochement with his young daughters, while struggling with his decision to sell the family’s land, which had been handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries.

Unlike Payne’s previous efforts, which were co-written with his partner Jim Taylor, “The Descendants” is co-scripted by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash.

Toplined by George Clooney, the cast includes Shailene Woodley and Judy Greer, and the very able character actors Beau Bridges and Matthew Lillard.

“The Descendants” world-premiered at the Toronto Film Fest and served as closing night of the New York Film Fest in mid-October.   The estimable Fox Searchlight, which did a fantastic marketing job with “Sideways,” will release “The Descendants” in late November.

Should we start marking our Oscar Ballots?

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