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The Descendants (Spoilers)

At the time, I found Sideways somewhat unapproachable. I wasn’t really sure why. Now I’m thinking I didn’t have the vocabulary, and I think it was a privilege problem. Alexander Payne made this great movie about the sad life problems of a pair of well-off guys. Yeah, Paul Giamatti is presented as a failure, and English teachers don’t make much money, but he can afford to take his pal on a week-long wine tour? That’s not realistic.

This is also the problem at the heart of The Descendants. George Clooney’s problems are more believable than Paul Giamatti’s. He’s not pretending to be more of a failure than he is. They’re still rich man problems, though. Adultery, family crisis, death — that could be anyone. However, much of the meat of Clooney’s woes are predicated on his status as one of the most important men in Hawaii. To emphasize with him, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a guy who is about to make a $500,000,000 decision. Clooney’s a great actor, and he brings everything he has to bear in this, so it works. Still, despite his disclaimer about how Hawaii isn’t really paradise? He’s in pretty good shape.

His marital problems may also come from his money. He’s proud of the fact that he doesn’t spend the capital he’s inherited; he works every day (as a lawyer), and he spends only the interest. So he’s got a high-paying job, plus he has significant money coming from a trust. He can send his kid to boarding school and he doesn’t need to worry about health care costs. But he won’t buy his wife a boat, and there’s a strong implication that he lost her love due to his workaholic nature. It’s hard to be well-off; it’s hard when the less fortunate critique you for not spending money.

Some of his extended family have blown their money and are supposedly broke. We don’t ever see them, though. Cousin Hugh, in a very good Beau Bridges performance, is Clooney’s foil. He wants to sell the land to a local, though, so he’s a good guy. Dresses like a beach bum, drinks early in the afternoon, but he’s got a bunch of rental properties and it’s pretty clearly not going to ruin him financially if the sale doesn’t go through. He’s willing to pass up the higher sale value in order to keep the land in Hawaiian hands.

So. I don’t think Alexander Payne really has a handle on realism, as much as he likes to talk about it. Clooney made the right decision to keep the land, but Payne could and should have shown us the downside. It’s not just Cousin Hugh being pissed off, it’s someone who doesn’t have health insurance or a job and won’t get an influx of money when they badly need it. Payne’s world is a glossy one, untouched by mundane concerns. In the opening, Clooney tells us how much Hawaii isn’t a paradise. That’s the only time we see any signs that it isn’t. Show, don’t tell.

Simultaneously, he’s quite aware of race issues. The climatic speech, where Clooney acknowledges that his family — descended from Hawaiian royalty as they are — are “haole as shit.” But then he turns around and claims a connection to the land. I don’t know enough about Hawaiian issues to really judge this, so I’ll leave all that there.

All that said? It’s a spectacular movie. Clooney’s immensely good. I thought he was awesome in his supporting role in Ides of March, in the way he slowly let us see the complexities of the character. He’s better in this. I touched on it earlier: how do you create empathy for yourself when you’re as handsome and charismatic as Clooney? By being fearless about showing the character’s faults. There’s a very, very thin layer between his pain and the screen, and most of the time it dissolves. Kudos to Payne, too, because he’s good at hitting those notes.

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