THE DESCENDANTS: Maui Wowie

4 12 2011

Like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne makes films that address the chaos of human experience. And thankfully, they’re funny too. THE DESCENDANTS, his newest, is no exception in either regard. In it George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian attorney whose life is turned upside-down when his wife is thrown from a speedboat and falls into a coma. Complicating matters are King’s adolescent daughters, the elder of whom informs Matt that his wife was cheating on him.

You're entering a world of Payne.

It’s a trailer-happy setup, but THE DESCENDANTS, like Payne’s other films, unfolds in unexpected and poignant ways. Its relaxed pace is underscored by multiple cross-fades and a soundtrack consisting mostly of solo acoustic guitar. But even slow-going, the film’s never dull, thanks to two equally strong performances by Clooney and Shailene Woodley as his teenage daughter Alex. My sister informs me Woodley’s on a show called ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager.’ But because I’ve never seen it and never seen her, I’ll go ahead and call her a newcomer. Anyway, she’s fantastic.

In ELECTION, Matthew Broderick’s attempt to wreak havoc on the student council led to his shaming, but the film’s coda found him, finally, happy; his sins were zero-sum. In SIDEWAYS, Paul Giamatti objected to Thomas Haden Church’s pre-wedding philandering, but ultimately covered for him. And in ABOUT SCHMIDT, Jack Nicholson set out to stop the wedding of his daughter to a mulleted moron only to back off and retreat to his lonely widower’s life. In each of these films, Payne’s leads walk the line between order and chaos, between hanging on to a principle and letting go in the face of alienation. In THE DESCENDANTS, Clooney’s Matt King is unable to get closure following his wife’s accident, and the push/pull between what he feels necessary to create order while staring into the abyss, is the film’s central focus. Does he track down the other man? Can he confront him? Should he? THE DESCENDANTS comes closest to ABOUT SCHMIDT as far as Payne’s back catalogue goes, with King’s crisis of impotence echoing Schmidt’s, and the search for the other man filling the void of grief as did Nicholson’s journey across the U.S. to stop his daughter’s wedding. As in SCHMIDT, the journey becomes the coping mechanism. But what happens when the journey ends?

SPOILERS, that’s what.

George Clooney and Beau Bridges, as Beau Bridges.

When King does finally face his wife’s lover, he’s played by none other than Matthew Lillard, apparently sprung from movie jail. (The terms of his parole, I assume, include staying 500 yards from Freddie Prinze, Jr. at all times.) King asks his foe how it all got started. “It just happened.” “Nothing just happens,” responds King. It’s perfect dialogue. Not only is it just what the cuckolder would respond in such a situation, but at the proper moment it gets right to the core question of THE DESCENDANTS, and of Payne’s films taken in total: if shit happens and all we can do is react, what’s the point of doing the right thing? Payne’s protagonists consistently ask this question of themselves. This, to my mind, is what makes them, and the films about them, so human.

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