If you were an actor, middle-aged or older and looking to revamp your career, landing a role in an Alexander Payne movie could be just the thing. On the other hand, collaborating with the man who brought to the world the twin masterpieces of midlife pathos “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” may mean that you come away from the project broken, humbled and feeling like all your nerve endings have been exposed. Call it a rape of the ego. Or a massively bloody session in the dentist’s chair, sans anesthesia. And if you don’t believe this, take a long, hard look at Payne’s latest movie, “The Descendants.”
Payne is among the most astute observers of white-collar American culture working in cinema today, which may account for the fact that his snarky movies come around only every so often. His works are often offensive, always thorny and terribly funny — in a choke-hold kind of way. It’s not exactly blockbuster material, and one imagines that getting these through a Hollywood board meeting without compromising the content is a feat akin to pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
Payne’s last feature-length outing was “Sideways” in 2004, which could safely be described as a full-frontal attack on Merlot wines and 40-something men, among other things. “The Descendants” is markedly more subtle and refined, with atypical pockets of feel-goodness.
Payne selects as his milieu a wealthy Hawaiian family directly descended from King Kamehameha. The centerpiece is George Clooney — and true to Payne’s style, he’s manhandled and stripped of his dignity, his sexual charisma muted under an array of faded Hawaiian shirts. At one point a teen boy gives him a friendly hug and Clooney’s character backs off, distaste spreading over his face like a rash. “Don’t ever do that again,” he says, in the manner of a man gravely affronted, but also like someone who hasn’t touched or been touched by another human being in a long time.
Clooney plays Matt King, a successful Hawaiian lawyer too busy to swim in his garden pool or pay much attention to his family. In the opening narrative, Matt remarks testily that he hasn’t “been on a surfboard in 15 years” and that contrary to what the rest of the world may think, being a rich guy in Hawaii has its problems too.
Matt is justified in saying so: His wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma after a boating accident, and his young daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is venting her loneliness by causing trouble at school. Matt’s teen daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is another piece of work: When Matt goes to pick her up at an expensive boarding school (apparently a refuge for delinquent rich-kids), he finds her drunk and indifferent to the family crisis. He hauls her home, where she divides her time between the sofa and the pool. “The water is dirty,” she complains. “When is the guy coming to clean it up?”
They say that no man is a hero to his butler, but Matt, for all the outward signs of cash and privilege, is a hero to none. His father-in-law blames Matt’s workaholism for Liz’s accident. His friends offer little in the way of real healing. His innumerable posse of relatives (headed by a dangerously affable Beau Bridges) are breathing down his neck to sell off a virgin tract of land that has been in the family for centuries. As for Liz, she lies immobile on a hospital bed with tubes attached to her, while at home, Alexandra informs Matt that his wife had been cheating on him.
Payne’s brilliance in drawing out the gooeyest moments in men of a certain age surfaces like a monster out of a lake when Matt runs over to his friends’ house down the road to find out the name of Liz’s secret lover. But in his haste, Matt slips on a pair of plastic clogs, unsuited to sprinting. Halfway down his own expansive driveway, he’s already panting and breaking a sweat. The camera follows him down a lane and around a corner; by this time, Matt is huffing and puffing, unable to gain speed and moving like an overgrown duck.
Payne has a great knack for abusing his characters like this. In his lens, everyone is equally humiliated, whether he be the sad, paunchy Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) or George “One of the 50 Sexiest Men on Earth” Clooney.
Even so, “The Descendants” turns out to be Payne’s kindest film. Matt gets a chance to behave less like a lawyer and more like a human being, redeeming both himself and his family in small but significant ways. In some passages he comes off like a modern-day King Lear in shorts, while Alexandra makes a nuanced shift from spoiled nightmare teen to devoted Cordelia.
And all the while, the backdrop of a Honolulu and Kauai with no Japanese tourists, no malls and no cheap sushi bars with plastic tables unfolds like a dreamy resort ad. At one point, Matt says: “Paradise? Paradise can go f-ck itself.” But really, if this isn’t heaven, it sure feels close.