Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Descendants

(Alexander Payne, USA, 2011)

After seven years, Alexander Payne has finally come in from the cold. I know I'm not alone in missing him in these intervening years. As wonderful as his contribution to "Paris Je T'aime"was, Payne is one of the few filmmakers that I'd consider "essential" to American cinema, and his proper place, if he doesn't mind me saying so, is working consistently on feature films. So now we have The Descendants, and we're told that more is on the way - that he is eager to make some more movies, and soon - which is great news. If the latest is any indication, he's still as vital as before, if a little rusty; he's also still taking risks.

The Descendants isn't Payne's best film. That remark begs for qualification, because one of the reasons for the "essential director" designation is the fact that even at his worst, Payne is a cut above the rest; at the same time, expectations, especially given seven years to ripen, inevitably become very high. And he mostly meets them. The Descendants has lovely performances from an exquisitely chosen cast (Payne is a maestro with actors), and it has that meticulously controlled tone that Payne is famous for. But it's also here that he falters a little bit. The Descendants is by far his most serious film; it's the first one that's recognizable as primarily a drama, and yet oddly, unlike his more comedic efforts, it doesn't quite pack the same dramatic punch as the previous films. This goes some way in indicating both Payne's strengths and weaknesses. Up until now, you could roughly label his movies Comedies, even though they were, at heart, philosophically serious. This is Payne's trademark - a funny man with serious preoccupations - and he's widely praised for it. But there's an important distinction to observe, and it makes all the difference. His movies aren't comedies with serious parts, or dramas leavened with comedy. His brilliance lies is creating moments, and an underlying mood, that is both sad and funny at the same time. Here's just one example - in Election, the character played by Matthew Broderick cheats on his wife with his neighbor. They're planning on having another assignation, but she doesn't show; defeated and confused, Broderick returns home, only to find his wife and his neighbor in the living room. They've been talking - it's clear in a moment that the neighbor has spilled the beans to his wife - both are red-eyed with anguish, and both stare at him with a terrible stew of pathos - betrayal, rage, injury - that's almost unbearable. Broderick just sort of slowly backs up and quietly intones, almost to himself, "okay...okay...". It's an excruciating moment of almost Sophoclean proportions. His wife is holding their baby when she giving him the how-could-you stare. Everything he knows has just been irrevocably fucked. And even so, it is, on some very proximate level, hilarious. Not that you'd laugh out loud. But funny because it's so awful, so absurd, considering how he anticipated the course of his afternoon. One minute, you're reveling in the carnal glories of small-town America. The next, your marriage is over. Oops.

If you think about it one way, you could see Payne as a prime example of the "smuggler" paradigm, which holds that serious filmmakers make certain concessions - they hew to a genre convention of some kind - in order to surreptitiously bring in certain ideas, tropes, etc. that otherwise wouldn't be acceptable in the high-stakes realm of mainstream movies.  There's some pretty clear limits to this metaphor, obviously, but it's useful as far as it goes. With Payne, it's less about any ideas as it is about emotions, and their messiness. What his movies are after, it looks like to me, is dealing with the fucked-upness of life in a way that honors life's complexity, rather than denying it. They are, at heart,  films about failure (and he's said as much in interviews). Failure, of course, is an unacceptable topic for mainstream films. You can make a film in which people fail, but you must offer some kind of antidote; it must always be risen above. In Payne's movies, that doesn't happen. They fail, and they fail hard. Think About Schmidt, which deserves massive credit for successfully humbling one of the the most virile presences in American cinema.  Here, Nicholson is a doddering retiree who loses the one person in the world who can really stand him, and then, in an attempt to reclaim his past, he tries to break up his daughter's marriage to a nimrod, a task at which he fails. Broderick in Election; another nebbish, another failure. You get the picture. And yet they aren't depressing movies; they don't linger on the failures they depict. And here's where Payne is really sneaky - he does offer redemption, just not the kind we've come to expect. Rather than giving us the event of redemption, or recovery, or correction, he gives us the feeling of it. Instead of showing us the girl and guy finally getting together, he implies that even if they never do, something survives that moment. That we do not struggle, and fail, in vain. It's really not that complicated, but I suspect it is exceedingly difficult to pull off - to uplift our spirits, even as our minds perceive things not working out. Hidden beneath the characters' mistakes is the long march of persistence. That's the secret message of Payne's oeuvre - life goes on. Stated plainly, it barely rises above platitude. But expressed artfully it takes on a certain emotional authority. It tugs on our heartstrings, it lifts our spirits, it sweeps clean, for some fleeting time, our disordered minds.

The Descendants isn't an exception to this, but it doesn't quite reach the same depths as Payne's other movies. I'm not sure why this is, but I have a theory: Payne's films succeed through the manipulation of a dynamic. This dynamic, unlike the oft-observed admixture of funny and sad, has to do with outlook, has to do with the previously stated "life goes on." Payne, through his movies, strikes me as kind of a pessimist in the classic sense, meaning a frustrated optimist. He's someone who wants to believe in the good things we all secretly hope for - that people can change, that life has meaning, that there is enough goodness in the species to justify its continued existence. But, burned as we've all been by evidence to the contrary, he couches such optimism (or hope, if you like) in cynicism. Except that it's not a protective stance, since it's expressed as humor - it manages to sublimate the smallness of the characters, their venality, because we laugh at it. Laughter strips the moment of its bitterness, and leaves behind the humanity.

Here, without as much recourse to the exhaust valve of flippancy, Payne gets serious. In this seriousness, he is at a slight disadvantage, since he isn't used to getting the same kind of mileage out of his cries as out of his smiles. He has to address the awful heaviness of the subject matter straight on, and his uninflected style doesn't quite do him the favor he needs. This isn't all that surprising, since the weakest moments of his previous films had to do with their more direct tackling of the upbeat - vide the coda of About Schmidt, which is just a bit too tidy to resonate as strongly as it needs to. After all the scenes of George Clooney dealing with his wife's death - before and after the actual event - there is a quietness that smacks of uncertainty. It's a director a little outside of his comfort zone, and it shows. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In many ways, Sideways, his last picture, was an apotheosis; it was the comedy of that historical moment, hitting almost every beat just right. It felt like the end of something, a farewell to the sunny days and hysteria of an America trying to dig itself out of post-9/11 despair. It was the moment we loosened up a little, before the wicked hangover of the Economy Meltdown really hit. Now, we have grief, we have death, and with it a chance at starting over. This has been a pretty damn good year for movies, and Payne's film seems like an appropriate marker, signalling new territory to be explored. Life is still going on.