Since it premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants has been a crown jewel in the eyes of critics, with many predicting it could land nominations in all the major categories at this year’s Academy Awards. So, like with all acclaimed films that are released, the question arises, “Does it live up to the hype?”.

In the case of The Descendants, I would argue that it doesn’t, but not for the reasons many would think. As a standalone film, it is solid. The plot about a frazzled lawyer (George Clooney) who is forced to bond with his strong-willed daughter’s after his wife is in a boating accident offers a few nice twists. George Clooney also delivers one of the strongest performances of his career, going against type as a flawed father struggling to hold his family together in the wake of tragedy. However, if you were to look beyond the film itself and analyze the career of its much-lauded director, Alexander Payne, you would find that The Descendants is nowhere near as clever or innovative as it may initially appear. In fact, I would go so far as to say The Descendants is just more of the same from a director who has become prone to playing it safe.

Alexander Payne began his career with such promise.  After working in Hollywood on short films for a number of years, Payne went to work writing and directing his first feature Citizen Ruth. Released in December of 1996 and starring Laura Dern, the pitch black comedy told the story of a loser convict who finds out she is pregnant after being arrested, yet again, for sniffing glue. After a judge attempts to persuade her into getting an abortion, her case goes public, with activists on both sides of the abortion issue going to war with each other.  Though all the elements did not fit together, no one could deny that Citizen Ruth was bold. For a first time director to put a comedic spin on such serious, controversial subject matter, and attempt to do it in a way that was neither offensive nor hurtful, was unbelievably daring. Right then and there, it became clear that Payne was one to look out for.

While many directors have collapsed under the pressure to deliver a hit after experiencing success with their first feature, Alexander Payne prospered with 1999’s Election. Working from his Oscar nominated screenplay, Payne crafted a brilliant satire about a nebbish high school teacher (Matthew Broderick), whose life and career slowly unravels as the result of a vicious election for student body president. Throwing out every worn cliché from all those 80’s teen films, Payne managed to craft a hilarious, twisted, and, at times, painfully truthful picture about the dark side of  high school and politics in general. Though Payne had set the bar high with Citizen Ruth, Election proved to be more sharply written and better paced, showcasing Payne’s growth as a filmmaker.

Though it looked as though Alexander Payne was on the brink of gradating to an elite class of filmmakers giving the strength of Citizen Ruth and Election, the director instead hit a kind cinematic plateau beginning with his third film, About Schmidt. The rather depressing tale of a lonely widower (Jack Nicholson) who goes on a road trip to stop his daughter’s wedding was a departure for Payne in terms of tone and subject matter. While Citizen Ruth and Election where both biting satires that aimed to break down societal barriers, About Schmidt was a light, reflective drama, in which Payne simply looked to delve into the psyche of his eccentric, yet humane, protagonist. In addition to narrowing the scope, Payne also sacrificed the crisp dialogue and inventive camera angles, so prevalent in his first two features, in favor of more traditional storytelling devices. While fans of Payne expressed some mild disappointment with this shift in tone, the critics generally showered praise on the film, highlighting the wonderfully subdued performance delivered by star Jack Nicholson. However, what should have been a pleasant departure for Alexander Payne as a filmmaker ended up marking a dramatic shift in his career, and not for the better.

In the past seven years, Alexander Payne has only directed two films, 2004’s Sideways and this fall’s The Descendants. While both films were highly acclaimed by critics, they were nowhere near as lively or adventuresome as Alexander Payne’s earlier efforts.  In addition to being light, intimate dramas, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants were all startlingly similar in terms of character, structure, and theme.  For example, each film features a defeated Everyman protagonist in Jack Nicholson, Paul Giamatti, and George Clooney. At some point in the film, the protagonist is either a victim of or witness to an extramarital affair and goes on a trip to discover himself at some point. Along the way, he encounters at least one wildly eccentric character whose sole purpose is to provide comedic relief and occasionally chime in with a surprisingly deep, revelatory point.

While Payne is a master of blending all these elements together to form a warm, and occasionally moving, narrative, it is starting to feel like he is just going through the motions.  That is certainly not the mark of a cinematic auteur, a label which many have been quick to bestow on Payne. This is especially disheartening when you look at some of the daring career choices made by Payne’s less celebrated contemporaries. For example, though he has only made eight films, director James Mangold has an incredibly diverse body of work. From the ensemble drama Cop Land, to the psychological thriller Identity, or the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Mangold has made it a point to tackle every genre once and he always puts his own unique stamp on each. Even something light and fluffy, like 2001’s romantic comedy Kate & Leopold, was elevated by his intelligent dialogue. Though James Mangold has not come close to crafting a true “masterpiece” and has had one or two misfires, he is always taking risks which is something Alexander Payne is either unwilling or unable to do.

While there is still plenty of time for the 50-year old director to turn it all around, he seems to have no intention. Within the last few months he announced plans for his next film titled Nebraska, which “surprise” is a road trip movie involving a deadbeat father and his estranged son. With that, all I can do is yawn.