Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges,
Review: 4 stars (of five)
The new film from Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) is a tale of a failed family man trying to make things right with his two daughters as his comatose wife lingers at the edge of death. It’s a very good movie, one that completely downplays the danger of mawkish melodrama inherent in its premise.
George Clooney gives a strong performance as a lawyer in Hawaii overseeing the dissolution of a family land trust worth millions. He’s been too long buried in his work to see the degree to which his wife and two daughters have slipped away, but when his wife ends up in a coma after a boating accident, his guilt is immediately present in the voiceovers that introduce us to his world. He realizes that his marriage had all but evaporated, that his 10-year-old daughter is not handling the crisis well, and that his 17-year-old seems nearly a lost cause.
The 17-year-old, played by Shailene Woodley, is a highlight of the film, both for the actress’ low-key, naturalistic performance and for the subtlety written into her character. This is a film in which the characters are more complex than the fractional portraits usually drawn in a screenplay. As Clooney tries to come to terms with his marriage and his daughters, the plot goes down some roads that would point toward broad comedy. It’s the humanity of script, director and cast that prevent the film from becoming a cartoon (despite the inclusion of a comic-relief teenager doing his best Keanu Reeves impression).
There’s a great moment, one of several, toward the end when Clooney’s jerk of a father-in-law again lashes out at Clooney, this time in his daughter’s hospital room. As Clooney and kids leave the gruff old man alone in the room, we see him silently bend over his daughter as she’s perhaps hours from death, and the tenderness and care with which actor and director present the father’s anguish is perfectly and quietly heartbreaking.
Just as the movie’s setup—especially Clooney’s main quest, which I’m not spoiling here—lends itself to narrative clichÃ©, so the setting, Hawaii, lends itself to visual clichÃ©. Interestingly, Payne presents a pedestrian, mediocre, often downright ugly Hawaii, only indulging in the beautiful tourist landscape shots at key moments when Clooney and his troubled daughters are finding some harmony. The subtle link between physical and emotional landscapes plays out in the climax to Clooney’s real estate subplot.
Probably the only misstep (depending on how well the Keanu-esque character works for you) is toward the end, when a side character’s stunning display of humanity and depth and an ability to forgive and love is cheaply undercut with comedy hysterics, for no visible reason other than to prevent the character’s nobility from overshadowing Clooney’s own apotheosis moments later.
Like Sideways, it’s a film that feels real and scripted, natural and crafted, and the sort where a certain kind of viewer will say, “But nothing really happened.” There’s a lot happening here, and it’s worth watching it happen.