Monday, November 28, 2011

Reel Thoughts: Trouble in Paradise

Director Alexander Payne has been making great films since Citizen Ruth and Election, but chances are most people are more familiar with Sideways or About Schmidt due to their Oscar nominations. His new film, The Descendants, shares a tone and subtlety with those latter films, to the point where those with shorter attention spans may flee the theater for the latest Twilight saga. I prefer to think of it as playing on Hawaii time, since the film is set completely among the non-tourists of that laid-back paradise.

The Descendants is gorgeously shot and deceptively subversive in the way that it confronts non-native people's co-opting of sacred lands. It won't make you feel bad as you sip a pina colada at a Hawaiian resort, but then again, it might.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a rich lawyer who is a direct descendent of Hawaiian royalty, which makes him executor of a trust that includes hundreds of acres of pristine Hawaiian land that he must sell before the laws dissolve the agreement. Unlike his family of Jimmy Buffett-like cousins, he hasn't lived off the great wealth the trust provided, and he is more than a little conflicted about selling the land for development.
All of this is just a backdrop to what is happening in his life. His wife, Barbara, bored by his lack of attention, began "seizing life" and ended up in a coma from a speedboat accident. Now forced to be a full-time father, Matt doesn't know how to communicate with his younger daughter and has no idea that his older daughter is getting drunk at the pricey boarding school where he sent her to straighten up.

The majority of the film deals with Barbara's imminent death and how to prepare the family and friends, while Clooney's character must additionally deal with a shattering betrayal by his now-comatose wife. Clooney gives a terrific, nuanced performance that is especially heartbreaking when he is left alone in the hospital room with his duplicitous wife and has to make peace with her. He gradually learns through tragic and uplifting events how to reconnect with his daughters and with the great land with which he has been entrusted.

Actress Shailene Woodley, who is best known for her role in The Secret Life of the American Teenager on ABC Family, plays the a tough, wounded daughter who becomes privy to her mother's less-than-admirable behavior in The Descendants. I recently visited with the 20-year-old actress to discuss her breakout role.

About how she got into character: "I'm not one of those actors who approaches it and thinks too much about it. I don't think about ‘the character' and ‘her arc' and what her life is like. I just try to approach it and be as present and truthful in the moment. I really responded to this screenplay because it was so real and raw and truthful and human. And it's so rare, especially in scripts that I read that are geared toward my age range. They're usually glamorized and not quite truthful."

On the screenplay: "The screenplay was so brilliantly written that there was no improvising. Emotion naturally came up and I was so fortunate to work with such phenomenal actors who gave me so much to work off of."

On director Alexander Payne, who she didn't know before she auditioned, and co-star George Clooney: "Alexander Payne is one of my top five favorite human beings on a personal level, and George Clooney is a superhuman. Every positive thing that you've read about him is true and every negative thing is hilarious because that man doesn't have a mean bone in his body.

On the time she spent on location in Hawaii: "These were the four months that shaped my young adult life. It was magical. Being there on set, it was such a comfortable environment. George was never in his trailer, he was always there hanging out with us. No one was better than anyone else and Alexander is such a happy human being, he created such a happy environment, there were never any fights or any disputes."

On the films serious and funny moments: "Everyone in some way or another has to deal with death, whether it's someone close or a family member, and at the same time, this movie is very funny. Life is funny, and we as human beings are hilarious. My friends who are gay always seem more open and comfortable with life and with mistakes. I took one of my friends to see the film and he was crying through half the film and laughing through the other half. Afterwards, he said, ‘That's just like real life: you laugh, you cry and you don't realize how funny life can be until you remove yourself from the bubble and look back on it.'"

Review and interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.