That emotional cocktail certainly describes Payne’s latest film, The Descendants, his first feature in seven years. Despite the long gap between films, Payne’s aesthetic and sensibility haven’t changed much between Sideways and The Descendants. The film is about Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer whose wife goes into a coma after a waterskiing accident, at which point Matt learns—from his teenage daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley)—that his wife had been cheating on him. Matt confronts multiple ugly truths at once, dealing with the impending death of his wife as well as the realization that his marriage, which had long been stale and uncommunicative, was in even worse trouble than he’d thought. As Matt tries to track down the man with whom his wife had been having an affair—real estate salesman Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard)—he’s also trying to get closer to his daughters, the troubled Alex and the goofy, weird Scottie (Amara Miller), broker a land deal that would make him and his many cousins incredibly rich, and come to terms with how his own workaholic distantness drove his wife away.
Matt is, in many respects, not a typical Payne protagonist, because he’s not as miserably pathetic as Miles or Ruth or Warren or Jim McAllister. Clooney had wanted a part in Sideways, but Payne denied him, understanding that no one would buy Clooney, one of modern Hollywood’s true movie stars in the classical sense, as a schlubby loser. Clooney’s Matt radiates the star’s square-jawed charm and self-assurance, so the one way in which he’s like other Payne protagonists is that he must deal with a barrage of confidence-shaking challenges to life as he understands it. In this respect, Clooney is perfect for the role, and he delivers a marvelously subtle performance as a man who had taken a lot of things for granted and is now confronted with the tragic consequences of his complacency.
JB: Yeah, it’s certainly a perfect Clooney role, even if Clooney doesn’t have what it takes to be a prototypical Payne lead. Or, perhaps more accurately, Clooney has too much to be a prototypical Payne lead. I recently read that after Clooney went through the initial wardrobe fittings for Matt, which include those typical untucked Hawaiian shirts and other clothes that look too big on him, the star joked that Payne was doing irreparable harm to his People Sexiest Man Alive image. But that’s an overstatement. Sure, Clooney is unshaven in The Descendants, and his hair is longer and grayer than usual, and Matt’s elder beach-bum attire wouldn’t fit within one of Steven Soderbergh’s fitted-and-pressed Ocean’s movies, but he’s still so-damn-handsome-it-hurts George Clooney, a guy who could roll out of bed on the tail end of the flu and still look better than the other 99 percent. (This isn’t Charlize Theron hiding under enough makeup and added weight to become totally unrecognizable in Monster, in other words.)
In fact, Clooney’s sex appeal, much of which is attributable to that deep voice and singular penetrating gaze (no one gives better eye contact than Clooney), is so uncontainable that some critics and casual moviegoers have suggested that he’s miscast, a common complaint being, “What woman would ever cheat on George Clooney?” While I find that specific complaint simpleminded—people cheat for all sorts of reasons beyond the physical, and even Matt doesn’t struggle to connect his wife’s adultery to the emotional distance and friction between them—the suggestions that Clooney isn’t right for a role that in so many ways is tailor-made for his abilities perhaps reveals that Payne is best suited to make stories about the truly unexceptional.
Having said that, let me make it clear that, like you, I think this is a terrific Clooney role, not just because Matt allows Clooney to be reserved and inward, which plays to the actor’s strengths, but also because Clooney fits into Payne’s larger mission within The Descendants, which is to subvert our expectations. That effort begins not with Clooney, actually, but with the film’s location, Honolulu, Hawaii, which Payne demystifies in the film’s initial sequence detailing that Hawaii’s proverbial “island paradise” isn’t immune to typical mainland problems, from bumper-to-bumper traffic to poverty to, of course, illness. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” Matt says in the opening voiceover narration as he sits in the hospital next to his unresponsive wife—tragedy, heartbreak and familial dysfunction can exist anywhere.
For Payne, the opportunity to bring everyday problems, flaws and absurdities to this exotic location must have been part of the motivation to make this movie. But thankfully The Descendants is more than some “rich white folks in Hawaii are people, too” plea for sympathy for the upper class, just like Citizen Ruth and Election are deeper than their criticisms of the lower and middle classes. The drama that unfolds here is a personal one, independent of its setting, which of course is entirely the point.
EH: For all the emphasis on Hawaii in the opening, the setting does wind up being pretty incidental except as background; this is a story that could take place anywhere, because it’s an emotional story first and foremost. On the other hand, the ultimate irrelevance of the setting is rather uncharacteristic of Payne, whose other films are deeply grounded in surroundings that he knows well. Here, he’s borrowing the setting from novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings, and all the Hawaiian shirts and the soundtrack of rubbery island guitar music feel like window-dressing, whereas the mundane middle America of Election and the wine country tourism of Sideways were much more fully realized. In The Descendants, most of the actual Hawaii material is sectioned off in the subplot about the land owned by Matt’s family, and the deal that he and his many cousins are arranging to sell it off. Whenever Payne dedicates a few scenes to the land deal negotiations, it’s as though he’s detouring into a secondary, almost entirely unconnected story, which gives the film a much more disjointed feel than if Payne had just focused more fully on Matt’s personal narrative. True, the land deal winds up tying into the adultery plot at the very end, when it turns out that Brian Speer is also connected to the deal and stands to benefit from it, but that’s just another unnecessary complication.
The tone at the end of the film suggests that there should be some emotional resonance to Matt’s decision about the land, but it doesn’t really work because his connection to the land has only been described, not seen or really felt. The scene where the family visits the land, and Scottie pouts that she won’t get to go camping there as previous generations had, is probably the closest the film gets to really dealing with the land in an emotional, personal way. Elsewhere, Payne introduces all of Matt’s cousins by name, only for most of them to never appear again, and that’s indicative of the truncated, half-assed feel of all the scenes revolving around the land subplot. The film was based on a novel by Hawaii native Hemmings, and many of these scenes have the feel of vestigial remnants of what must have been a much more substantial thread in the source. I’m left with the impression that Payne had to either deal with this material in much more depth, or cut it out almost entirely, because it sits pretty uneasily in the film as is.
I’m also glad you brought up the voiceover, because it’s one of several problems I have with The Descendants, which boasts many great performances without Payne quite building a great film around them. As I believe we’ve discussed during a previous conversation, I don’t agree with the received wisdom that voiceovers are always detrimental to a film; sometimes they can work quite well. Here, though, as nice as it is to listen to Clooney’s smooth voice, the narration mostly just seems unnecessary, and at worst it resorts to strained metaphors like Matt’s comparison of his family’s fragmentation to an archipelago (because they’re in Hawaii, get it?). The film is at its best when Payne allows the nuanced performances to stand on their own; the voiceover too often is just hammering home feelings and ideas that were already perfectly clear without the extra words.
JB: To be fair, I believe the only true narration is in the beginning of the film. After that, Payne drops it, something he’s never been afraid to do—use voiceover when it suits him, even just for one scene, and then discard it. Still, yeah, the initial narration includes some too perfect analogies, like the archipelago one you mentioned, and at least one random one: Matt says that some of the most successful businessmen in Hawaii dress like beach bums and stuntmen, the latter part being a curious comparison, because how does Matt know what stuntmen dress like, and how do we? (That line is so misplaced it should disqualify The Descendants for Best Screenplay awards.) I think one of the reasons that the voiceover seems omnipresent is because there are a few scenes in which Matt talks to his comatose wife, neatly laying out all his thoughts and emotions, that work much the same way.
I agree with you that the land deal subplot feels incomplete, like something tacked on that’s meant to either justify Matt’s distance from the family or to artificially enhance the complexity of his abilities to do right by his wife’s feelings for Brian Speer, as if it wasn’t complicated enough already. I think what Payne is going for here is the idea that Matt has viewed his family, not just their land, as a possession, an asset, and the experience of losing his wife and reconnecting with his daughters makes him connect emotionally in a way that he hasn’t in a long time. Before the party at which Matt decides not to sell, there’s a sequence in which he throws open the curtains and shutters of this little beach house that’s a de facto museum of family history, and Payne, along with Matt, observes the many old family photos on the wall. The scene suggests a man rediscovering his roots, not just as pedigree but as actual family. And of course Matt’s decision not to sell is an extension of his efforts to let Brian say goodbye to his wife before she dies: he’s trying to do the “right thing.” All the land deal stuff can be explained in that way, but, as you’ve suggested, it isn’t enough to make it feel emotionally connected with the rest of the drama.
Still, it does lead to one of my favorite shots. In the scene in which Matt first learns about Brian’s connection to the land deal, he’s out getting lunch with his daughters and Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause). After hearing the news, Matt returns to their table and sits down, and Payne captures Matt in a closeup profile, sitting against the wall, an overwhelmed expression on his face, with a small Hawaiian band playing in the background behind him. Payne delivers a lot of the film’s emotion through closeups on Clooney, but this shot is a perfect visual articulation of that opening narration in which the complexities of real life slam up against the romantic optimism and cheerfulness of the setting.
EH: Moments like that do work really well, because Payne basically can’t go wrong whenever he simply turns his camera on Clooney’s face and lets the actor’s subtle expressions—you can really see the wheels turning as he struggles to process this latest shock—tell the story. Whatever my problems with Payne and this film, there’s no denying that he’s either a phenomenal director of actors or a master of casting—or both, probably. Clooney’s performance stands out, of course, but I was almost equally impressed by Shailene Woodley, a young actress I’d never seen before who did a fabulous job of conveying Alex’s simmering teenage confusion. Alex is afflicted with a lot of typically teenage contradictions, caught between approaching maturity and a strong instinct for rebellion, and this emotional firestorm is intensified by her anger at her mother and the mingled sympathy and contempt she feels for her father. The scene where she first tells her father about her mother’s infidelity is especially masterful: she’s all but goaded into blurting out the revelation by Matt’s insistence that she put her anger at her mother behind her, and it’s obvious that she can’t decide if she blames her father for this situation or not. There’s a lot of emotional complexity in scenes like this, and throughout the film Woodley, guided by Payne, never fails to do justice to this girl’s navigation of a very adult, confusing situation. In a way, the film is about Matt and Alex simultaneously growing and maturing, the daughter maturing into adulthood a little before her time while the father belatedly catches up to his age.
Payne excels at that kind of emotional turmoil, and he excels at finding the right actors to convey these complex webs of feelings. Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) is a gruff, stern man who’s unyielding in his disapproval for Matt and Alex, and who blames Matt for his daughter’s unhappiness and the accident that put her in a coma. He’s a bracing, often discomfiting presence in the film, and of course he’s unable to see his daughter’s marriage from an even-handed perspective, but his appearances are unfailingly complicated by the fact that many of the accusations he directs towards Matt have at least a ring of truth to them. And then there’s the scene where Scott and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife sit by their daughter’s bedside, saying goodbye, while Matt and Alex eavesdrop on this moment of tenderness and intimacy, witnessing a rare unguarded moment from this usually stony man.
The best example of this kind of emotional reversal or revelation is Alex’s friend Sid, who tags along on what is otherwise a series of private family dramas because Alex insists that she’d feel better with him around. For much of the film, Sid is purely a comic relief character, doing and saying outrageous and almost willfully stupid things that stereotype him as a stoner/slacker idiot. By the midway point of the film, I was getting more than a little sick of him, to be honest, and had him pegged as another example of Payne’s tendency to create paper-thin stereotypes as punching bags for his mean sense of humor. (And Sid is also a literal punching bag for Forster’s Scott, in one of the film’s more uncomfortably unfunny stabs at humor.) Then, as though sensing the annoyance the character was likely to generate, Payne includes a quiet but startling scene that completely flips one’s perception of the character without changing a thing about his personality. It’s a simple late-night conversation between Matt and Sid in which Matt, getting desperate by now, tries to understand his daughter by talking to her best friend. Sid, for once, holds his abrasive humor in check and reveals the hitherto unseen quiet dignity of this character, who has experienced his own share of pain and loss and deals with it in his own irreverent way. As he says, he and Alex don’t actually talk about their problems, but help each other feel better by goofing around and making each other laugh, which helps put the rest of Sid’s behavior in context. It’s a short and simple scene that is nevertheless very necessary, both as a way of deepening this otherwise one-dimensional joke character and as an example of Payne’s penchant for finding catharsis in unexpected places.
JB: The relationship between Sid and Alex isn’t all that different than the one between Matt and his kids, actually. While The Descendants is all about a man confronting, finally, all the problems in his family, there’s so much that still goes unspoken. The hugs between Matt and his kids have a distance to them, for example, even at the end when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom, and although Matt, Alex and Scottie do grow closer over the movie, they bond less out of love for one another than through a shared sense of having been wronged—by the deception of the affair, by Brian Speer’s manipulations and by the waterskiing accident. A lot of what happens in this movie fits in with the stereotypical-because-it’s-true notion, held by many, that it’s OK for family to harm itself but not OK for someone else to harm the family. Thus we see Alex stand up for Matt when Scott is lecturing his son-in-law, and we see Alex become protective of Scottie by urging her younger sister to call out her friend for being a “twat,” and obviously Alex and Matt bond principally by tracking down and then staring down Brian Speer. Matt, Alex and Scottie have a long way to go before they understand one another, but over the course of the movie they do learn how to protect one another.
That’s what I appreciate about Payne films, the way characters can grow without completely figuring everything out, and the way that characters can seem heroic while still being flawed. It’s worth noting, in the context of our condescension debate, that some of Matt’s antics in this film would play like attacks on a no-class lower class if not for Matt’s wealth and good looks—in particular the scene in which Matt lectures his comatose wife at the hospital, noting that relationships are supposed to make life easier and accusing her of always making life harder, up to and including suffering the accident that has her on the edge of death. That scene has a lot of bite to it as-is, but certainly the same tirade would feel a lot darker if, say, delivered by Warren Schmidt to his wife, and perhaps that’s evidence in favor of the idea that Payne is most interested in showing the ugly truths of all his characters, regardless of their social standing or political affiliations, and maybe sometimes it’s Payne’s audience that makes connections to class that just aren’t intended.
EH: I don’t know if that’s quite true, if only because Payne himself always seems so conscious of his characters’ class statuses, whether they’re well-off like Matt or lower-class like many of Payne’s other characters. It’s true that Payne can be harsh towards all his characters, regardless of class, but it’s also true that there are hardly any Payne characters where class isn’t an issue at all. It’s obvious that he thinks about class in relation to his films, so a part of me can’t help but believe it’s no accident that he’s relatively more affectionate and understanding towards the higher class protagonists of Sideways and The Descendants.
Still, The Descendants has more to offer than class commentary, like fantastic performances and a bracing emotional honesty that makes it a great actors’ showcase, if not quite a great movie. It’s narratively incoherent, with a modular structure that makes it seem even more disjointed: the film’s different acts vary wildly in tone. At times, it also verges into shrill melodrama, especially in the scenes towards the end of the film with Brian Speer’s wife, played by the normally likable Judy Greer. It’s a very uneven movie, punctuated with great scenes but not quite hanging together as a whole. That it’s all pulled together for the subtle, ambiguous final shot—Matt and his daughters cuddled up on the sofa, watching TV and eating ice cream, a shot that Payne holds for wordless contemplation for quite a long time—only partially redeems the film’s flaws and messiness.
It’s not surprising that my reaction to The Descendants vacillates between admiration and annoyance; that’s been my reaction to nearly every Payne film. I went into this conversation loving Election while harboring a lot of ambivalence about his oeuvre as a whole, and my opinion hasn’t been changed by this latest work, nor by revisiting his filmography. He’s an interesting and contradictory director, though, a curious blend of the humanist and the cynic; he often just mockingly eviscerates his characters, but he’s also proven himself capable of much more nuanced portraits that reveal the beating, fallible human heart beneath the caricature. That’s Payne at his best: when he sets up a character like Tracy Flick, or Sid in The Descendants, who seems to be little more than a target for his derision, until he peels away the layers and locates the humanity, the sadness, the unexpected complexity of these seemingly simple characters. The moments when he achieves this delicate balancing act are the bright spots in an uneven but undeniably intriguing career.
JB: Yeah, I’m with you: Payne is at his best when he comingles emotions. Sometimes he does so simply by juxtaposing the touching and the tragic, such as that great moment near the end of The Descendants in which Matt rests his hand on his wife’s matted hair, giving her a loving caress, in spite of all the recent heartbreak and disillusionment, but often he does so by literally blending images, such as the scene in Sideways in which he employs a sequence of cross dissolves—a Payne staple—as Miles flirts with Maya, drinks too much, becomes distant and then drunk-dials his ex, in doing so inspiring our sympathy and our disgust in equal measure.
It’s certainly an intriguing career; I’m interested to see whether Payne continues to make more conventional comedic dramas like The Descendants or returns to the comparatively raw and combative tone of his earlier works. Personally, I root for the latter. Cinema needs a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to bite into the averageness of average Americans. And if charges of condescension come with that, so be it. I don’t think these characters need Payne’s protection, and often in supplying it critics can commit the same offense they’re attributing to Payne, judging the characters less on their actions than on their clothing, home decorating and automobiles. Especially in an era in which the Occupy movement has people sharpening their focus on the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, we need a filmmaker like Payne who, The Descendants excluded, makes movies about the other 99 percent.