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A less painful Payne.

If there's an image that remains lodged in my head from this latest Alexander Payne film, it's of George Clooney running. He's in pursuit of information he really doesn't want, but he runs as if his life depends on knowing. And the only word that comes to mind to describe his character's running style is "spazzy."

I saw him run in The American, too, and like everything else in that movie it was a sleek, streamlined gait, befitting a smoothly functioning assassin. So the dorky, arm-waving waddle-sprint he affects here is kind of a trick to make you to forget for a second that not only does his character have boatloads of money but that he also looks like George Clooney. It's meant to endear you to his problems. And he does, in fact, have some serious stuff to deal with.

His family, the latest offspring of generations of Hawaiian landowners, wants to sell a pristine patch of island greenery to some hotel developers. Doing this would ruin the land, of course, and make all the old-school Hawaiians hate him, but it would also make him and his family even richer. His daughters are distant because he's been a distracted father and his wife -- to whom he's also been something of a stranger -- is in the hospital, the victim of a boating accident that's left her in a coma and near death.

When one of his daughters announces that mom was having an affair before the accident, that's when Clooney breaks out the awkward physical moves. Call it calculated, but it gets the job done, necessary when a movie's main task is to convince you to side with a rich, handsome person and forget that you really do believe you'd have no problems at all if you were in his shoes, coma-spouse or not. You have to connect with him in the same way he has to re-connect with everything he's spent his life slowly divorcing.

It's kind of like Opposite Day from Payne, whose earlier movies -- Citizen Ruth, Election, Sideways, About Schmidt -- were steeped in hilarious darkness, bitter reality and compelling jerks. And if you're wondering where all those earlier anti-nice characters ran off to, it might be because you missed his contribution to 2006's collection of short films from various directors, Paris je t'aime. That's the bridge between the brutal Type-A Tracy Flick of Election and irritating oenophiles of Sideways and this kinder, sadder, sweeter Payne. In Paris je t'aime's final segment "14e Arrondissement," the amazing character actress Margo Martindale plays a postal worker who's saved and worked for years to visit Paris. She's visiting alone, and acknowledges that she's sometimes lonely, but that she's so thrilled by her chosen vacation spot that it doesn't matter. She loves Paris and it loves her back. No ugly character flaws, no judgments, just a good but otherwise unremarkable woman navigating through life, finding connection on her own, and it's the most moving section of the entire film.

So are you ready for a forgiving, humane Alexander Payne? He's pretty good at it, even if it's new to him. And it feels like he enjoys stretching that muscle. He will move you, even if you can sort of feel the begin-crying-now stuff coming a mile away. Doesn't matter. Sometimes earnestly striving for goodness and running a little awkwardly in its direction is its own reward.


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