Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is wry, wise, lovable and handsomely photographed. But it’s also one of those films that invites you to see it – like a steamer trunk readied for a busy itinerary – through a haze of labels, fanciful or direction-defining. George Clooney is the rich and troubled hero. You could call him Hawaii 5-O. He’s 50 and lives on O’ahu. His wife is in a coma after a speedboat accident. You could call her the Plot Device. From her hospital room she catalyses the story’s events, co-scripted by director Alexander Payne from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Those events include Clooney’s attempts to control two difficult daughters (aged 17 and 10) and his anguished inner debate over whether to sell a 25,000-acre stretch of land – call it the McGuffin – owned by generations of Anglo-Hawaiian ancestors.
Of course it’s no contest, even if we quietly, at times pleadingly, wish it were. We wish – especially from the director of Sideways and About Schmidt, two rumbustiously cynical (and label-resistant) comedies about surviving that death sentence we call life – that it were not so obvious that Clooney will do right by every subplot. He whisks the kids and us around Hawaii’s islands (free travelogue!) for the notional purpose of meeting, and punching out, the man he learns was once the Plot Device’s lover. He caringly tends the Plot Device. And he resolves the McGuffin the way we expect, though a startling late cameo by Beau Bridges, long-haired, large-girthed, wild-mannered, an apoplectic man-walrus erupting from the movie’s gentilities, holds off “closure” for a while.
The devil is in the lead role’s casting. This is George Clooney, not Jack Nicholson or Paul Giamatti (previous Payne protagonists). He cannot persuade us that he’s a menopausal male frump, messing up everyone’s life including his own. His is still the handsomest head of grey hair in the solar system. His are the debonair, subtly hydraulic eyebrows. His is the voice like mulled gravel – first-class gravel. Even when, in one sequence, he runs down a road in flip-flops trying to be ungainly, this accelerated duck waddle is just the Clooney swan doing an act.
The saving notes are the film’s minutiae. There are dialogue moments in Payne’s drollest, enemies-on-edge style. “Wassup, bro?” says the older daughter’s lunkhead boyfriend, giving Clooney a dude-on-dude hug. Clooney, with a look: “Don’t ever do that to me again.” In a magical later moment – magical because it has no logical material connection with the scene it’s in – Clooney, on a plane, turns from a despairing eye-duel across the aisle with his older daughter to exchange a split-second look with his seated neighbour, a big, dim-browed Hawaiian. There is something brilliant about this tiny deadpan collision of far-apart consciousnesses. It says either, “Well, maybe, given the alternatives, we are better off interacting with our families” or “When you need help, turn to absolutely any pair of human eyes you can find.”
Some clever filmmakers have an inoculation ready against negative audience response. Just when we fear that Like Crazy is going to curl our toes – a romcom-with-tears about a pretty English student (Felicity Jones) sundered by circumstance from the young American furniture design trainee (Anton Yelchin) she loves – writer-director Drake Doremus features a close-up of the girl’s naked toes, curling. Game over. No audience will pass up Jones’s toes, even with a pinch of schmaltz. Wit, tenderness and outmanoeuvrings: that’s what we get from a film setting out, with thoughtfulness and charm, to test the chestnut that true love is impervious to time and space.
Distance enhances devotion? Tell that to Anna, who overstays her US visa, thereby imperilling the lovelorn duo’s later plan to build a marriage nest in America. Once back in Britain, she can’t re-fly west; Jacob, building a business, hesitates to migrate east. Months become years; both get new partners. Jacob’s Sam (Jennifer Lawrence) resembles a chubbier-faced Anna. A and J still swap texts – the intimate language of the geographically sundered – and once or twice meet to duel with immigration apparatchiks.
It can be a short step, with romcoms, from simple-hearted to simple-minded. Not every filmmaker is Eric Rohmer. But Like Crazy – never mind Rohmer – has at times a Godardian bite and fleetness. It tears off years like calendar pages. It does the puppy-passion phase with a single funny, innocent montage, shot from overhead, of serial sleep-together positions. Later it distils potentially syrupy scenes to single drops of poignancy: a standing figure in a room, as enigmatic as an early Hockney, holding the bad-news cellphone. The film’s ending is exact, perfect, heart-touching. It has the last word without saying a word.
Liam Neeson battles howling Alaskan wolves and winds in The Grey. Socked by elemental sounds, socked in by snow blizzards, we can barely distinguish at times the stranded oil-rig toughies, led by hired company wolf-killer Neeson after the group’s plane crashes, from the lupine marauders. Both parties are fur-headed or fur-hooded; both grimace with flashing, feral teeth; both seem to have been to the Actors Studio for advanced snarling classes.
Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) does a terrific plane crash. At the press show we clung white-knuckled to our chair arms; our eyes panicked upwards in hope of oxygen masks; our styrofoam coffee cups shook with the DIY turbulence of our terror. But the film runs out of energy after that. When you’ve seen one actor torn apart by a man-eating wolf, you’ve seen them all. Weather worsens; anti-carnivore expedients fail. The story’s middle section should be called “The Vanity of Bonfires” (conceived and created by a different Mr Wolf). Only the weirdly mesmeric momentum of Neeson’s Ulster accent stands against danger and death. He sounds like a demented Ian Paisley blessed with the looks of a snow-battered Lohengrin.
Patience (After Sebald) wins the 2012 prize for the title least likely to cause a stampede at the multiplex. What? (After what)? WG “Max” Sebald was, a few may know, the British-based German author/thinker who wrote The Rings of Saturn, a peregrination around Suffolk with post-Holocaustic musings. Grant Gee’s documentary is very winning. The film chugs devotedly in the late Max’s wake, pausing at places named in the book to decant, like a libation, excerpts from the text. There are also spoken thoughts from an all-star cast of thinkers and artists, pondering the death of innocence, the purposes of art, the sculpting erosions of time. You name it – and them: Tacita Dean, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion, Rick Moody…
One contributor points out that Sebald was a pioneer in what is now an uncontrollable, runaway tropism: “The countryside is black with people going for walks to write books.” And to make films. Sebald’s work, screen-transferred, startlingly resembles Patrick Keiller’s forensic travelogues (Robinson in Ruins) and even early Greenaway (A Walk Through H). It just shows. It can take a stranger from a strange land to point out first, to his adoptive countrymen, the strangeness and wonder of their own land.