Friday, December 16, 2011

Complex fermentation

This is some of what I said about Alexander Payne’s last film, Sideways: “The movie is always thoughtful, but I found it rather too easy to take, bearing aromas not so much of the maturing oak barrel as of the sitcom-office water cooler. OK, I know that was lame, but the film so over-ferments its wine analogies that The Grapes of Wrath plays on TV in one scene. Anyway, for all its articulacy and introspection, I did not come away from the film with many new ideas about this complex fermentation we call life. Payne’s best film still seems to me, by a mile, to be the scintillating Election, a construction of such graceful metaphorical and allusive complexity I can’t imagine anyone taking cheap shots at it.”

The Descendants

Sounds like I was enjoying myself. Amazingly, that was seven years ago; in interviews, Payne himself seems astonished so much time could have gone by. He’s now back though with The Descendants, a favourite for Oscar nominations. The movie is always thoughtful, but I found it rather too easy to take…for all its articulacy and introspection, I did not come away from the film with many new ideas about this complex fermentation we call life. Yep, I’m afraid so. However, the new film doesn’t have any wine analogies, so that’s one kind of progress. I don’t mean to be flippant – the film actually is an advance on Sideways. But measured against the year’s strongest pictures (tune in next week for that), it’s rather too simple. It feels actually like the work of someone who’s far more prolific, and therefore content to coax out modest variations on established territory.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer, and trustee for a long-established arrangement through which he and several dozen extended family members jointly own a huge parcel of gorgeous, undeveloped land. They’re now working to unlock the trust and sell out to a developer, becoming mega-rich in the process, but then Matt’s wife has a boating accident, becoming comatose. His youngest daughter Scottie (aged ten) responds by becoming imaginatively disruptive; his oldest Alexandra (aged seventeen) by threatening to unleash the whole arsenal of possibilities available to a seventeen-year-old. One of these missiles entails telling Matt his wife was having an affair, throwing a bewildered bolt of resentment into his vigil, and prompting him to go in search of the guy (without fully knowing why he wants to).

Making choices

The film’s opening stretch draws heavily on Clooney’s voice over to set up the situation, and I was worried it would feel like an illustrated audio book more than an actual film. But as it settles into its stride, The Descendants is certainly engrossing and beguiling. I was most taken by its subtle exploration of the parameters and responsibilities of family. Some of this is broadly conventional of course – a father finding a way to reconnect with his daughters. But Matt’s so embedded in the island that he can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a cousin; they commiserate about his wife with one breath, lobby for their business interests with the next. In an inspired, perfectly executed concept, Payne throws a friend of Alex’s into the mix – a weirdly serene, lumbering type who ends up accompanying them everywhere (and in one of the film’s best moments, reveals his own recent catastrophic loss). The wife’s affair, of course, throws everything up for reexamination.

A O Scott in The New York Times put it like this: “In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.” It’s a reasonable evocation of the film’s key strength, but I ultimately find myself grading it less highly than Scott does, mainly because that sense of free movement doesn’t ultimately bring the characters, or us the viewers, to a very different destination than might have resulted from a more “predetermined”-feeling film.

Still, there’s a lot to like about it. Payne is certainly capable of inspiration far transcending normal dull craftsmanship; for example, in retrospect, you realize the only moment of unambiguous joy comes in the opening shot, of the wife before her accident. I also found the movie fairly revelatory about Hawaii, which I’ve never been to. Actually, on balance, it’s now probably slightly less likely I’ll ever go there. I’m not sure if Payne would consider that a reasonable response.

Catching up

I also spent some time catching up on some recent movies on cable. It’s pretty easy to set out the strengths and flaws on all these. Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, a drama about a runaway train, has a terrific sense of physicality: it’s very satisfying to immerse oneself in all that tonnage and momentum and friction, and the movie even has more social awareness than most Hollywood product (you can just feel the Occupy Railroad movement waiting to burst out). But at the end of the day, it’s still just a drama about a runaway train; once they catch the thing (hardly a spoiler, I imagine) you’re just standing on the platform with an empty suitcase.

Neil Burger’s Limitless depicts a struggling author stumbling onto a wonder drug which stunningly enhances his mental capacity, taking him virtually overnight from penniless bum to potential Master of the Universe. The film plays entertainingly with the possibilities of the premise; when it hits its articulate, hyper-aware stride, it just pops. But ultimately it fails to articulate the benefits of such powers other than through the traditional trappings of sex, fast cars, pristine apartments (you know, all the stuff the people who made the movie probably build their lives around, even without a wonder drug): the inner life goes almost entirely unexamined.

And then John Carpenter returned, after an even longer absence than Alexander Payne, with The Ward, a period-piece about a group of institutionalized young women locked up in a hyper-creepy hospital wing. It draws effectively on the long iconography of women oppressed by medicine, their self-expression classified as hysteria, but renders it all for nothing with the lamest and most clichéd kind of “surprise” ending (basically the same trick as the current season of Dexter pulled, to cite just one of the recent applications). Ultimately, I did not come away from any of these films with many new ideas about…well, I guess you get the rest…

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