And our favourite writer, Subrat is back. After many requests, much cajoling and few smses, he managed to sit down and write this post on a film that he really liked. Read on.
We like to deal with the big issues. Those that are significant. The crisis of capitalism. Saving the earth. World peace. On the fabric of society, these are the big pictures. Acknowledging them is mankind’s acceptance of its collective failure. There’s something charmingly uplifting when we discuss our frailty in plural. It ennobles us. With such vexing problems to solve for the collective, why are we then, individually, beset with the trivialities of life? Why does the insignificant ground us? Betrayal. Loss. Estrangement. These warp and weft of life that should have subsumed themselves to the grand design. Instead, they force your attention to them. And to you. To your imperfections.
Imperfection is what Alexander Payne wants us to meditate over in his new film The Descendants. It’s seven years since Payne gave us Sideways and, on the evidence of this film, it’s reassuring to note these years were well spent on the minutiae. And, on imperfections. This gives us a film that is in turns profound and farcical while managing a lightness of touch that is often sought but seldom achieved. There is an unhurried pace to the story that eschews dramatic highs and showdowns though there’s ample opportunity in the script for both to surface. More importantly, the director avoids the trap of caricaturing the shallow, ordinary American family that seems veering towards dysfunctionality.
In a society that worships achievement, it is interesting how being ordinary is celebrated in American literature and films. May be it is the impact of American Realism; of Mark Twain and Henry James who crafted their stories around everyday people facing moral choices. How deep is their impact on American culture can only be gauged by the currency that stories of ordinary lives have enjoyed for the better part of last century in America. From Faulkener, Updike, Franzen in literature to a whole host of films that have rightly (or, wrongly) won critical acclaim for protraying ordinary lives. Just run through the list of Oscar winners over the years to see the impact that realism still holds on American psyche. Strong enough to have Ordinary People win the Best Picture nod in the year of Raging Bull (a more compelling case for the entire lot of voting members face the firing squad hasn’t been made).
That aside, if any contemporary director in Hollywood can lay claim to that real tradition of realism, it has to be Alexander Payne. Payne has an instinctive grasp of an ordinary life, its tribulations and, like the realists of the yore, he lets the character stumble his way through reaching the right conclusion. And, like them, he understands locations. From Omaha, Nebraska (About Schmidt) to Napa Valley (Sideways) or even that last segment that he directed of Paris je t’aime, Payne has few peers in weaving in the location into his films. In The Descendants Payne takes the unlikeliest of locations for depicting a family in strife, Hawaii, and makes it integral to the film.
Matt King (George Clooney) isn’t an ordinary Hawaiian as he informs you in the voice-over that starts the film. While disabsuing us of the notion that Hawaii is a tropical paradise (yes, there’s poverty and grime there), he quickly establishes his bloodline that traces its history to the tribal royalty and the early white settlers in the middle of the 19th century. He is a partner in a real estate law firm who has worked hard to build his identity separate from his ancestry. Matt, though, is burdened by this ancestry that has bequeathed on him the responsibility of disposing off a large virgin tract of land in one of the islands for ‘redevelopment’. This is big news locally as it pits the alleged forces of development (malls, amusement parks et al) against environment. Matt and his sprawling extended family of cousins (there’s a cousin popping up every minute in the film in brightly coloured shirts and chappals) are indifferent to the debate. There’s no less messy way of dividing up the family fortune and quite a few cousins are hard up.
These, seemingly, larger issues hardly match up to what fate has dealt Matt. His wife of many years, Elizabeth, lies in a coma in a Honolulu hospital with doctors ruling out any chances of survival. Matt’s younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a 10-year old who is precocious in the wrong way whose favorite pastime seems to be to confuse her friends on adult issues. Matt, admittedly, has never been a hands-on parent (a backup as he calls himself in a voiceover) and, in Elizabeth’s absence, he finds Scottie a handful. There’s also Matt’s older daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), who’s been sent away to a boarding school to rid her off her drug habit. Matt brings her back to make sure the family is together when the doctors pull the plug on Elizabeth. He had hardly bargained for the secret that Alex carries that seems to make her loathe her mother – Elizabeth was cheating on him. Matt becomes obsessed about finding out Elizabeth’s lover and breaking the news of her impending death squarely to him.
The narrative arc is quite familiar from here on. Matt has to pull his family together, learn to be friends again with his daughters, put his wife’s transgressions behind him, do the right thing on the land deal and seek redemption. This is a territory susceptible to high melodrama and in the hands of lesser director would have turned into a soppy, sentimentalist work. But Alexander Payne elevates this into a whimsical and wry look at life by keeping sentiments at a safe distance. He is ably supported in this by an ensemble cast that is completely in step with the director’s alternating profound and farcical treatment of the subject. Especially noteworthy are the cameo turns – Nick Krause as Sid, the irascible boyfriend of Elizabeth who isn’t as shallow as he seems, Judy Greer, who chews up the scenery in just the two scenes she is there.
The triumph of The Descendants is how it meanders through this familiar arc. There is no pre-determined denouement that the film is hurtling towards. There are no certainties here, like life. It appears like everyone has time to spare. Unhurried is perhaps the term. Matt, who has all the emotional cards dealt to him, is often driven by petty instincts. You are bound to be sympathetic to him but you are intrigued by his fickleness and his decisions. Payne isn’t judgmental in his portrayals. You take each character from your own station of life. It’s rare for a film to achieve this.
The cynic in me wanted to see through all of this. This whole calibrated business – of ordinariness, of making George Clooney look stupid, of having a bunch of kids dysfunctional on surface but being alright at the end and of making a statement about development versus environment. I have let the cynic question it all. I have done my best to see through the deception. It’s been over a month since I saw it and I have failed.
May be, for once, there’s something real here. You be the judge.
But take my advice. Don’t bet against The Descendants this awards season. There’s no Raging Bull in the ring. And, The Descendants is no Ordinary People. Though that title may have fitted it perfectly.