Has it really been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last film? I thought Sideways (2004) was the most exquisite American romantic comedy since Annie Hall, and though it was only Payne’s third high-profile feature (after About Schmidt and Election), it locked in the essential elements of the Payne style: the naturalistic blend of humanity and wit (think ’80s Jonathan Demme meets Preston Sturges meets Jean Renoir), the New New Hollywood classicism that’s bubbly and spontaneous but always masterfully controlled, the sense that every story isn’t just a story but a journey. About Schmidt was a road movie, and Sideways started out as one — but even when Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church got to California wine country and parked themselves there, it felt as if they kept moving, because their drunken cracked voyage of discovery surprised and delighted you in every scene. It was a road movie of the soul.
So is The Descendants, Payne’s long-awaited new film, which premiered at Toronto on Saturday (it’s based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings). In a funny way, Payne has become the Stanley Kubrick of serious American comedy: He takes forever to make a movie, searching, every time (as Kubrick did), for the perfect book to adapt. But when he finally finds it and gets rolling, he turns each film into a fully realized and inhabited universe unto itself. The Descendants is another beautifully chiseled gem — sharp, funny, generous, moving — that writes its own rules as much as About Schmidt or Sideways did. I’ll say right off that I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did Sideways, but watching this movie click together in its own brittle, original fashion is a richly satisfying experience. Almost everything about it seems, well, novel: the lived-in, slightly grungy urban Hawaii settings (it’s about a family that has been on the islands for generations); the performance of George Clooney as Matt King, a rumpled lawyer in ugly tropical shirts, geeky-dad braided belts, and a normal-schmo haircut who has lost any vital connection to his family. And then there’s the premise, which is so straightforward in its everyday darkness that, at first, it seems almost a bit…challenging.
Before the credits, we see a woman standing, smiling in the sun, on a motorboat. It’s Matt’s wife, who, as we soon learn, was thrown from that boat and now lies in a hospital bed seriously injured. As the movie opens, she’s in a coma, and the news may be worse than that. The Descendants isn’t a when is she going to wake up? movie. It’s something with a much more dire tug: an oh my God she’s gonna die and what are we going to do? movie.
The “we,” in this case, is Matt and his two daughters: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), who’s a happy-go-lucky brat, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, about whom you’re going to be hearing a lot), who’s such an unhappy brat that she’s been sent off to boarding school, where she favors drunken nights on the beach. The more we learn about this family, the more impossibly messed-up we can see that they are. Yet Matt, who’s sitting on a family trust that he’s too conservative, and maybe too stingy, to use (the family owns the last spectacular virgin beach land in the state), isn’t just thrown into the abyss by his wife’s coma. He’s slapped in the face and woken up. The Descendants has been made with the deceptively simple, random flow of an improvised journey, and though some of the things that happen in it sound conventional, the situations keep twisting, whether it’s the comical hunting down of an adulterous lover or the selling off of that trust on behalf of a group of breezy, greedy cousins.
All the acting is freshly minted, from Robert Forster as a father-in-law so cantankerous it takes you a moment to notice that everything he says is true to Shailene Woodley, who makes the teenage Alexandra such a sharp, beguiling presence that she seems to wash away the residue of a thousand bogus movie adolescents. But it’s George Clooney, still a rascal, with the gleam in his eye now heightened, shockingly, by traces of fear, who carries the movie on his noble weary shoulders. I don’t think he’s necessarily better here than he was in Up in the Air, but that was the movie that taught us it wasn’t a lie to feel George Clooney’s pain. In The Descendants, he draws on that trust. He gives a pitch-perfect performance as a man woken up, for the first time in years, by the immensity of his loss. His big “Goodbye” scene will be hailed by everyone as a classic Oscar-bait moment, and it is — but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great moment, too. It turns sentimentality into something like grace.
* * * *
It’s worth asking the question: Fifteen years after Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), why is Todd Solondz, in his new film, Dark Horse, still dicking around with a character who’s such a sad, arrested, noxiously clueless idiot-loser that he makes George Constanza look like George Clooney? Abe (Jordan Gelber), at 35, is an eager, pudge-bellied dolt who still lives at home with his parents, where he stuffs his room with action figures and models of The Simpsons. He works for his father (Christopher Walken, all scowls and a bad toupee) as a lowly office accountant, blames everyone but himself for his problems, and tosses empty Diet Coke cans into wastebaskets two feet away as if he were shooting “cool” game-winning three-pointers. (He also drives a giant yellow Hummer, which I guess is supposed to symbolize The Corruption Of Our Values.)
This is the kind of character who’s meant to make us squirm, and squirm I did — but not because Abe the excruciating junk-culture sad sack touches the raw nerve of our desperation (the way that the characters in Dollhouse and Happiness did). I squirmed because the real deluded one is now Todd Solondz, who is so stuck in his outdated loser tropes (depressive insecure girls, like the one played here by Selma Blair; the vulgarity of middle-class Jewish New Jersey; helpless schlubs who don’t know how to dress, make small talk, or ask someone out on a date) that he’s no longer connecting with his era. He still knows how to hold you as a filmmaker: Scene for scene, Dark Horse plays — certainly better than Solondz’ last film, the abysmal Happiness sequel Life During Wartime. By the end, though, when he starts to enter the realm of Solondzian metaphysics (dreams within dreams, etc.), it’s as if he’d realized that this material wouldn’t stand up on its own. It’s time for Todd Solondz to stop turning his filmmaking into a contest of “How pathetic can I make my characters?” and to stop confusing that toxic contest with artistic integrity.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman