By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Picks of the Week: New. The Descendants, Melancholia
THE DESCENDANTS (Also Blu-ray/DVD Combo with Digital Copy) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Alexander Payne, 2011 (Fox Searchlight)
Good things can be a long time coming. It took director-writer Alexander Payne seven yeaRs to make a new film after his Oscar-winning/box-office/critical triumph with Sideways in 2004. Considering how good Sideways was, and how much it was liked, that’s a long, long time. (Too long).
Watching Payne’s new movie, The Descendants — a brainy, empathetic, beautifully executed comedy-drama set in Hawaii and starring George Clooney as Matt King, a well-fixed lawyer from one of the state’s leading families, coping with family crises — I realized how much I’d missed Payne, and what an important slot he now fills, in a movie industry that doesn’t seem to prize enough the qualities (casually convincing realism, wit, intelligence, humanity) that his movies bring to the table.
Clooney, the star-narrator of The Descendants doesn’t have any problems with exposure these days. He’s a guy we tend to see at least once a year, and in 2011, we saw him twice, in both The Descendants (which I liked) and The Ides of March (which I didn’t). Whatever their level of quality or appeal, those were both thoughtful, serious, intelligent, well-done films, with plum roles for Clooney, as a politician facing campaign corruption in Ides of March, and as Matt, a family man facing the consequencs of death in Descendants.
It’s possible that neither of these movies would have been made without Clooney’s special star clout. (The bankable Jeff Bridges might have been a good alternative choice for Michael, especially since Jeff’s brother Beau plays Clooney’s genial cousin here.) But Clooney tends to use his clout selectively and wisely, and his instincts have rarely been sharper, than in his choice of The Descendants. It’s a wonderful movie, and, as an actor, he really shines in it — unselfishly. Even though he’s present in every scene, and dominates them, Clooney always helps the entire excellent ensemble cast shine with him. He’s never been better.
This is a perfect Clooney role and movie, just as The Hustler or Hud or The Verdict were perfect for Paul Newman, The Sting or The Way We Were or the Sundance Kid were perfect for Robert Redford. Everything that makes Clooney attractive on screen — likeability, smarts, vulnerability, earnestness in the face of chaos, that wry sense of being at the center of things but not letting it carry him away, and the ability to kid himself — is present in the character he‘s playing here: Matthew King. King, a Honolulu lawyer, comes from an old respected (Anglo) Hawaiian family, and is the trustee of a huge 25,000 acre stretch of mountain, forests and beach on Kuaui that the majority of his more spendthrift, less affluent cousins (headed by Beau Bridges, near-perfect in a wily slob role as Matthew‘s cuz Hugh) want him to sell.
First though, Matthew has to handle a family tragedy in the making. His adventurous wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), sustained grievous head injuries in a water skiing accident off Waikiki and now lies comatose, on life support. She is due to be unplugged, as per her own wishes, after the doctors’ unanimous verdict that she will never wake up. This leaves Matthew in charge of his two daughters, the impudent, mouthy-beyond-her-years 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious, willful and discontent 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) — an obligation complicated by Scottie‘s precociously foul mouth and Alex‘s propensity for drugs and booze, and her insistence on the presence, during the crisis, of her seemingly dull-witted weedhead boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause).
Things are bad. But things get worse. Alex spills a secret she knows about her mom, that Matthew doesn‘t. Elizabeth was having an affair: a revelation that sends Matthew into a desperate tizzy, and sets him on the trail of the guy who cuckolded him — a slick local realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). It also forces him to confront, by turns, some of the worst and best inside him. Privy to Matthew’s moral and emotional journey: his daughters, who will grow up fast (and have already grown up faster, perhaps, than he likes), his irascible father-in-law (Robert Forster) who thinks Matthew wasn’t good enough for his daughter, Elizabeth’s lover and his wife (Lillard and Judy Greer) and all those cousins lined up behind Hugh, hands out.
Remember all those names, and the others I mentioned before. All of them, from Clooney on down, act so selflessly, immerse themselves so completely and whole-heartedly in their roles, that one reacts to the entire movie not as a theatrical piece bent on eliciting laughs or tears from us, but as something close to an actual life experience, something real that elicits those rewsponses almost effortlessly, naturally — and to the players as people whom we get to know better and more and more deeply as the story progresses.
The laughter here is as totally earned as the tears. Clooney plays Matthew with seemingly heartfelt sympathy, knowingness and without vanity, subtly but clearly shifting the focus whenever needed to all his cast-mates. Emotionally, watching The Descendants is like watching a piece of life, slightly elevated and drained of the dull spots — or like watching an immaculately executed trapeze act, done with no net, with acrobats who flawlessly soar and whirl and, at the crucial moments, clasp hands.
That brings us back to the story — which is the kind our movies often don’t give us, except in lower budget independent projects. Yet everything we see, is deftly pitched toward comedy, drama or pathos — as when Clooney’s Matthew gets a mad, lost look in his eyes after Alex tells him of the affair, and goes running off, ill-shod, to a neighbor‘s house to cross-examine them about the affair, aware that he’s imposing, aware that he’s guilt-tripping them (for keeping the secret), aware that he looks ridiculous, but not caring.
Then there are Clooney‘s never overstressed reactions to the unusual words he hears coming out of his daughters’ mouths. There is the remarkable and surprising dopiness of Krause as Sid, The Descndants’ sort-of equivalent of the hilarious Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, as Sid moves from dull-witted, vapidly grinning pot-jock and thick-headed consort, to someone more savvy, even admirable.
Yet, despite the way The Descendants gives us something like a real world and something very like real people, despite the way it avoids the slick, trashy, glossy maneuvers that draw huge crowds to fancy junk like the Twilight series, nothing in the physical production of The Descendants looks skimped on. The movie is set in lush Hawaiian locations, in Honolulu and on Kuaui, on the sunlit surf that rolls in on Waikiki Beach, below the tall palms that wave over the sand, among the wealthy homes with feasts laid out on the lawns, and in an urban district that seems almost self-effacing in its comfortable simplicity.
It’s beautiful — and most of the scenes are underlined with Hawaiian tunes and other popular music. But these images of Hawaii never seem “touristy,“ and it becomes the most apropos of backrops. Matthew undergoes a change during the course of the film, which I won’t describe fully — but it’s both logical and unpredictable, as all good drama (and good comedy) usually are. We like Matthew, I think (I know I do), but not in a way that precludes all judgment. He’s a good man, we sense, but far from a perfect one. And he‘s been thrust into a situation that, in many ways, demands that he be a better man than he is, or maybe than he’s shown so far. It demands of him a kind of unlikely perfection, even as he behaves, more than once, quite imperfectly. Running off to find the adulterous Brian, taking along his two surprisingly worldly daughters and the affable seeming-doofus Sid, while his wife, disconnected from life support, lies dying, strikes me as a selfishness he should not have indulged just then — though we the audience probebly want him to do just that. We‘re all curious too.
Mostly though, the circumstances of the movie demand that Matthew think almost constantly of others before himself — including the people who have wronged him. He doesn’t always do that — but the movie allows you to feel that he wants to, that he‘s trying, and that, more and more, he’s succeeding. The Descendants shows the good and bad in almost all its characters, which is why, as a unit, this ensemble is so impressive.
Bridges is a wonderful blowhard, Forster a letter-perfect military bully, with a streak of honor. Lillard reeks with opportunism and self-regard and naked fear. Greer is very fine as a seemingly fragile deceived wife who proves somewhat sttronger under stress. And very affecting here, in a movie that values age and experience in a way that many movies don’t, are Krause as Sid and the young actresses Miller and Woodley, who brilliantly play Matthew’s daughters Scottie and Alex. Miller‘s Scottie is both maddening and adorable. Woodley’s Alex is venomous, vulnerable but eventually steadfast. Krause‘s Sid is a trip.
The movie is about Matthew’s generation, descendants of the first Kings. But the kids of course are the other descendants, who will carry the story and the family code even further, until it proves useful again, or hardens and crumbles like old driftwood on the beach.
In the old Hollywood, the directors whose ability to mix moods, and to meld comedy and drama recall Payne’s — Leo McCarey, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, John Ford and others — would often grace us with a movie a year (like Clooney), sometimes more. So have more recent masters of comedy-mixed-with-drama such as Woody Allen and Robert Altman, and today the Coen Brothers. But that’s partly because, the older directors of the Golden Age worked in a factory town, whose rules they mastered, making use of both the corporate confinement and the strange freedom of the classic Hollywood system.
Payne has mastered the rules of the newer, more decentralized Hollywood. Or at least — after The Book of Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and now The Descendants — he’s mastered the art of making memorable, smart, warmly human, absolutely terrific movies, while taking a hell of a lot longer to make them. (Maybe it’s the set-up that’s hard.) We can only hope Payne can be as productive again as a Wilder, as an Allen, and as all the others. We can use his movies.
The Descendants is not, I think, as good as Sideways, which I thought was one of the ten best films of the first decade of the 2000s. This new film doesn’t have anything like that sublimely goofy humor Paul Giamatti and Church put into their best scenes in Sideways — though sometimes it comes close, with Sid in the car, or with Matthew running to that neighbor’s house, like a desperate turtle pursuing an unreachable hare. It’s a sadder film than Sideways though. What it does have — and this is a really precious gift, one of the best any artist can give us — is a sense of life and humanity, and of human beings in all their funny, melancholy, buoyant, sometimes desperate, happy, sad, exciting and goddam marvelous glory. That’s what a movie should be. Can be. Is. here.
Well, nice job, everybody. Clooney you dog, keep it up. Drop by again, Mr. Payne. And don’t take so long next time.
MELANCHOLIA (Four Stars)
Denmark: Lars von Trier, 2011 (Magnolia, Amazon Instant Video)
Depression can be a state of anxiety and of sorrow in which the world seems to swallow you up. Lars von Trier, who is nothing if not depressive, reverses that process in his new film, Melancholia. He, the artist, swallows the world up instead — using his art as a filmmaker and his fears as a human to hurl our planet (and all of us) into his private darkness and funk, plunge us into his own gloom and (final) doom.
Melancholia begins and ends with the end of the world — and imagines that climax in the most extravagantly arty 19th century way, with a musical lament from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” Prelude, falling birds and images of star Kirsten Dunst who plays the movie’s sad, explosive heroine Justine (von Trier’s emotional stand-in) floating by in the water like Millais’ Ophelia, while images of apocalypse resound like Wagnerian chords, or the prelude of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, restaged for some lunatic Festival of Armageddon. It better be beautiful — or von Trier will look like a fool. It better be striking; it better be memorable. It is.
After Melancholia’s gorgeous angst-ridden prelude to (or prediction of) catastrophe, von Trier takes us into a contemporary but somewhat Rules-of-the-Game-ish world where the rich and privileged are gathered for a party: a wedding celebration for melancholy Justine and her painfully indulgent new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsagrd), who forgives her everything — and there’s a lot to forgive. Accompanying this odd, mismatched foredoomed-in-every-way couple is a huge beautifully dressed assemblage that includes Justine’s initially well-adjusted, can-do sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of von Trier’s nightmare Antichrist), Claire’s rich, ultra-rational husband John (Keifer Sutherland), Justine’s nasty mother and nutty father, Gaby (the great Charlotte Rampling) and Dexter (the superb John Hurt), Justine’s money and ad-conscious boss Jack (played by Stellan, the elder Skarsgard), and dozens of others. A fine cast, all of whom excel at partying and theatrical disintegration.
If the evening seems familiar, it’s because we may have seen before such dysfunctional movie gatherings as the wedding parties run by Robert Altman (A Wedding), Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married), and — a favorite of mine that tends to get ignored in these lists– Krzysztof Zanussi’s Contract. I’ll bet the party though, that most inspired or engaged von Trier (or aroused his competitive juices), was Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Danish birthday feast, The Celebration, the international arthouse hit produced by von Trier’s Dogma 95. The two films are similar in mood and style, at first — at least during von Trier’s film’s first part (called “Justine”), before apocalypse takes over in the second, “Claire.”
Von Trier is both close to Dogma here, especially The Celebration, and a long ways away from it. He began his career with films that were highly theatrical, visually flashy, almost Wellesian (The Element of Crime, Zentropa/Europa), then made a marked shift to the bare-bones, ultra-indie, jittery-camera style of Dogma 95 and Breaking the Waves. At first, his story’s victims were men; then they became women — preferably big famous beautiful, finance-able and adventurous movie stars like Nicole Kidman or here, Dunst. Now, he seems somewhere between the two, and I wish he’d stay there. Dogmatism of any kind can wear you out.
In this movie, the staging is complex, the acting is emotional, and the visuals are both spontaneous and lush. The structure is simple. The Melancholia party goes seriously off the rails. Then we discover that our universe is going off the rails as well. A large dark planet named Melancholia is heading toward Terra, and, within days, this world will collide with us, and wipe us out of the skies. Life, movies, politics, financial collapse, love, hate, The Cannes Film Festival: none of it will matter. The chords will crash, the world will end. Kaputt. Why was the wedding party so oblivious to impending doom? Why is Michael still so convinced it won’t happen? Why does Justine seem now not self-indulgent or mad, but prescient, right? Is she?
In any case, the film is beautiful. Extremely beautiful and very anxious. Depressing, but what did you expect? Listen, face facts: We will probably never see a happy Lars von Trier movie. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is the one.
End of Spoiler