I'm not sure I'd use the word "formula", but I'd certainly back up what I think your primary point is: that there's nothing in Payne's films like Sideways and (apparently) this that should doom him to a life of indie scraps (Citizen Ruth is maybe a different case, though I love it almost as much). Sideways was, to me, a pretty wonderful film, but one well within what used to be considered the studio norm. I think many arond here (probably including you and me) said at the time that, 30 years, earlier, it might have been a Jack Lemmon-in-Billy Wilder-mode vehicle. It's a scathing indictment of how utterly today's studios have abandoned anything that even hints of adult life and banished it to their indie arms that it had to go the Searchlight/festival route.
It's vintage. Nothing revelatory. No unexpected turns are taken. I would argue that many filmmakers that peaked not ten years ago have achieved excellence or at least the level of relative excellence that Payne did with Sideways with the same basic ambition. When I say formula, I mean everything in Sideways can be found in your most rudimentary of screenwriting books. Alexander Payne writes films very academically (or Jim Taylor does). For the most part, his characters begin their human journeys with a subset of very human flaws that their journey will provide challenges to rectify along the way. Some of them are minor, some are specific, some are thematic. The major villain in an Alexander Payne film is human nature either within the main character (About Schmidt, Sideways). Election is his best film because it balances satire with a specific rivalry that allows for his thesis to play out. I think he's going to likely spend the rest of his career doing variations on SIdeways, which The Descendants certainly looks like. Maturation road movies even if nobody physically goes anywhere.
Mister Tee wrote
I'm also not quite sure you can say Payne hasn't been embraced by the public. Election, yeah, should have done better. But About Schmidt did over $60 million domestic and Sideways over $70 million, which, for grown-up comedies near a decade ago, was a pretty solid number. We'll see if Clooney can take him even higher.
He will. Alexander Payne hasn't been embraced by the public. They don't know who he is in a different way than they don't know who anybody is. About Schmidt made money b/c of Nicholson, but regardless of that the failure of Sideways to crossover was pretty well-documented in 2004, a Fall season utterly devoid of a candidate. Nobody had seen The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby wasn't scheduled for release. Amidst lame talk of parallels between Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, Sideways was the critically adored little movie that could...that didn't. By the end of the year, it hadn't made $25 million. Sideways was poured down peoples' throats during Oscar season. Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator made $100m+ and there isn't really any reason why either one of those films should have been as significantly more embraced by the public than Sideways.
Sight unseen by me, The Descendants will be Alexander Payne's biggest hit because he is doing something that to me appears unusual for him: he is making a movie about a main character who does not appear to be an asshole. Miles is an asshole. Warren Schmidt reveals himself to be an asshole. I'm crossing my fingers that he can grow (from making films about assholes) and still be kinda great.