Alexander Payne makes movies that are just about people – their flaws and insecurities and hopes and failures. It’s a tricky thing to get right; when not much happens in your film, you’d better hope the script is up to scratch.
About Schmidt saw Jack Nicholson play a curmudgeonly, retired widower, alienated from his daughter, coming to terms with the fact he’s a bit player in the final act of his own story. Sideways is about a man who realises he is never going to write the great novel he always dreamed he would. And The Descendants shows George Clooney’s middle aged lawyer Matt King trying to accept that life has crept up on him, that he hasn’t picked up his surf board in 15 years, has two troubled kids and a wife – now in a coma after a boating accident – who had a secret life he knew nothing about.
The three films share a common thread in the road trip their characters embark upon as they try to make some sense of their lives. But where Sideways and About Schmidt saw the lead characters kicking and screaming against the inevitable, Matt soaks it all in. Clooney plays him with remarkable restraint, a likeable man unable to fully comprehend what life has thrown at him. His 10- and 17-year-old children are excellently played by Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley, and the supporting cast – especially stoner Sid – rarely put a foot wrong. There are no good or bad guys, just people. Even the potential villain of the piece turns out to have a human face.
It is all played against rain-soaked Hawaiian landscapes – beautiful rolling scenery and vivid blue seas that provide little comfort against the emotional storm. The Descendants is about the adversity we’ll all face sooner or later. As Matt says at the start of the film: “My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation… Are they nuts?”
First published in City A.M.