Based on the debut novel by Hawaiian-born Kaui Hart Hemmings, much of the film's humor comes from the antagonism between King, molded by old-money dictums of responsibility and never, ever drawing on his principle and the island's prevailing "hang loose" attitude. Regardless of location, Payne brings certain Midwestern values with him: "By the way, that line where [King] says, 'I agree with my father: You give your kids just enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing'? That's stolen from Warren Buffett. That's an Omaha line."
Although not so confrontational as Election, Payne's latest retains his wicked sense of humor rooted in discord — the friction between different class-based social expectations, between a purposeful past and a aimless present, between intensity of feeling and ridiculousness of expression. Payne pays great attention to the sound in his films, those little subversive elements in the mix that undercut the most dramatic moments with absurdity, like the flap-flap-flap of King's docksides as he sprints out of his house, faced with the fact of his wife's unfaithfulness. "For me, the funniest cut in The Descendants is when Judy Greer goes to the wife's bedside, says 'Hello, I'm Julie, I'm Brian's wife.' And then it cuts to the woman's face" — here Payne tosses his head back, mouth agape, imitating the comatose Mrs. King — "That always makes me laugh. That's a grim cut."
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."