DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE
STARRING: GEORGE CLOONEY, SHAILENE WOODLEY, AMARA MILLER, NICK KRAUSE, JUDY GREER, MATTHEW LILLARD, ROBERT FORSTER, MARY BIRDSONG with ROB HUEBEL and BEAU BRIDGES
I feel dreadful for having delayed writing this review by almost a day and having not written it the moment I got back to my room from watching ‘the Descendants.’ For one, I’ve not reviewed Alexander Payne before – I’ve only liked him. I don’t know if I could do justice to someone as prolific and significant as Mr. Payne is to contemporary World Cinema. I didn’t know if I could do justice to someone I love, whose presence and contribution I cherish beyond mere delight.
There are facets to the man, there are sides that complement each other, sides that are of complete contrast that they constitute parts of one absolute whole. Payne, the humanist. Payne, the humorist. Payne, the upper-middle class storyteller, Payne, the undoubted champion of the ‘neighbourhood’, Payne, who cups his hands on the sacred flame of life and lights one’s mind with the illumination of his own self-conscious, guilt-subduing empathy. It has been seven years – seven very long years since ‘Sideways’, the last acceptance of inevitability, of loss, of suffering; of humour in helplessness. ‘Goodbye Solo’ was replenishment, Ramin Bahrani was/is of rare, definitive promise. Thomas McCarthy, Peter Hedges – they’ve all taken the boat to different banks of the same nourishing river.
But there hasn’t quite been the inimitable pleasure, the self-accepted perversion, the sexism, the misogyny as much as feminism and most importantly, relevance in the constrained, flawed and beaten-down morality of an Alexander Payne film character. Every single venture of his (with the exception of his debut film ‘Citizen Ruth’) has been an adaptation; his own characteristic translation of suburban stories richly detailed, neatly chronicled and striking with their simplicity. There is as much elation as there is heartache in these anecdotes as we find, there is glory in their simple little lives. It isn’t just nostalgia working, there is real pleasure in Payne – that which seems stronger in his return.
There had been a recorded downtrend in the sale of the Merlot as opposed to the Pinot Noir variety of red wine when Payne made ‘Sideways’ in 2004, speaking for writers Rex Pickett (who wrote the novel), Jim Taylor and himself through the staunch, stubborn and deadbeat Miles Raymond. With ‘the Descendants’, he heads off the coast and takes us to Hawaii, the surfboarding capital of America, where the landscape as we see it has immense potential to be monetized. In fact, there are a couple of shots where he dabbles with the scenery with the nosiness of a photographer who cannot resist himself, almost advertising the land alongside the fondness that comes with it.
Still, as exotic as the setting might be, it’s not landscapes that he’s selling. It’s the people, whose hearts are just as warm, whose lives as complicated and whose cancers, just as deadly like he puts it through to us in George Clooney’s fed-up, wise-cracking Tom Waits sort of tone in a voiceover right up front. Much like every other movie of his, Payne cuts a portion off the world and puts it beside you, making for a closer watch. These people might have their accents, they might have their weird wardrobe and footwear and extensive seafood diets. But, for all you know, they might be your neighbours.
Matt King (George Clooney with a performance of unforeseen subtlety) is a lawyer, a descendant of a native Hawaiian princess and hence the sole proprietor of a trust that owns about half the land around the place, whose legitimacy of ownership would die out in about seven years, thanks to the ‘Rule against perpetuities.’ He has two children – seventeen-year-old Alexandra ‘Alex’ King (Shailene Woodley, another to add to the list of assertive young actresses) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) with a wife (Patricia Hastie) who’s at the hospital in a coma after a misadventure on her motorboat. With the signing-over (to a certain Don Holitzer) coming in a week with all cousins coming together to celebrate the hundreds of millions that they’d cash in on with the sale, Matt has but one thing on his mind as he anxiously awaits his wife getting better so that he could make up for lost time.
Several things happen in succession. Matt finds that this wish of his to get back to his wife on some lost romance is futile. First of all, there’s no way her condition is going to improve. Second of all, he comes to learn from his very own daughter that his wife had been cheating on him. “What makes all the women in my life want to destroy themselves?” he asks. Elizabeth (his wife) with her speedboats. Alex with her drug-indulgence and alcoholism. Scottie, who’s invariably stuck with him, the ‘back-up parent.’ He’s one of those people who thinks the world is burning and doesn’t see his tail catch fire, where life’s this layer of fireproof clothing that makes it sure you don’t feel anything more than just the heat that gets you sweating and exhausted and down on your knees.
The transaction, the intrigue, the insufferable anger and the helpless reconciliation are all tied up in a simple loop filled with thankless, unforgiving, single-minded characters who seem one-dimensional because that’s as much of their stories that we come to know. The outlook is utilitarian, these people come and go in Matt’s linear course of trying to piece the situation together. The Father-in-law who doesn’t know his own daughter but knows enough to love her blind, the Lover, the substitute that she found for Matt in a possible ‘anyone but him’ kind of situation and his wife, the mother of their children, the proponent and platform of whatever he has for a family. The resilient cousin, to whom the sale jumps off the page on an uneventful life otherwise. The impassive youth to whom Alex clings to beat loss and loneliness with nonsense that can be excused.
It’s amazing how real Payne makes these characters look in spite of the fact that it’s like they’re made of cardboard and stuck on a screen. Also interesting is the bunch of actors that he’s assembled to play these characters. Robert Forster (‘Jackie Brown’, ‘Medium Cool’) plays the gruff, disapproving father-in-law, Judy Greer, who’s been in sleazy comedies one too many, is cast as the wife of the other man and Matthew Lillard (Shaggy Rogers in the ‘Scooby Doo’ franchise) plays the other man. Veteran Beau Bridges plays the only cousin with a voice of his own, that which, again, is almost representative of the entire rest of them as well. The only shortcoming could be how disjointed, disconnected and distant these characters are from each other’s life, which, of course, is also a strength considering the satirical, almost defeatist sense of romance that the story shares with the life of the people in it.
Clooney is beautiful as Matt King. Payne knows that, and we know that he knows from the amount of close-up profiles of Clooney that abound throughout the movie. Paul Giamatti can’t call for such focus. But Clooney with his sculpted, elaborately-lined face where every twitch comes out magnified a hundredfold strikes us down with the shaken superiority that he commands with the stripped-down nakedness of Matt King. Kevin Spacey wouldn’t have made for a better option. He’s like Dan (from ‘Dan in Real Life’) but at the onset of trauma, clueless as to what to do with his kids, the surreal weight of responsibility getting to him that he’s having to resort to asking one of them for help. Shailene Woodley as Alex is Alison Pill in ‘Dan in Real Life’. In her, Clooney and little Ms. Miller (as Scottie), we have three beautiful people that the exterior visualization turns out as strong as the actual impact of character. They’re heroes of this glorious story. They have charisma, in short.
Humour is in the moments, not the movie. There are those that make you laugh. There are those where you’d want to, there are those where you wouldn’t want to. But then, there are those times in life both on and off the screen where you can’t help but laugh, where the instance is so overwhelming, so hard in your gut that laughter is about the only thing you can hit it back with. Your humour is your means to retaliate, you retaliate with acceptance. You wish you could fight your way out of the quicksand, but the only way is down. And you find yourself faced with the helplessness of the situation, the raw irony, the heartlessness and the wholesomeness of heart, all at the same time.
‘the Grandeur of Doom’, as Keats once wrote, is a thing of beauty. Incomparable; indestructible. In your face. That’s ‘the Descendants’, in a nutshell.