‘Sideways’ director strikes again

‘Sideways’ director strikes again

Establishing a sense of place is as important to an Alexander Payne movie as the complex characters he crafts. Five years ago it was the wine country of “Sideways,” and before that the plain-spoken Midwest in “About Schmidt.” For his latest film, Payne uses the backdrop of Hawaii, with all its lush landscapes and island sensibilities, but as the main character Matt King (George Clooney) narrates in the beginning, just because it seems like paradise doesn’t mean its residents don’t have problems.

Matt has a big problem. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been in a coma for 23 days, the result of a boating accident. Self-admittedly the backup parent for his two daughters, he must now deal directly with an unruly 10-year-old, Scottie (Amara Miller), and Alex (an excellent Shailene Woodley), a 17-year-old with attitude to spare — and Matt’s in over his head.

From the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, Payne and writing partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have scripted one of the best movies of the year with a remarkable ensemble cast led by Clooney. It boasts an aura of intelligence and maturity not found in many films today as it follows the King family through this family tragedy in which revelations and repercussions buffet the family like a tropical storm.

Matt, a successful real estate attorney, is also the sole manager of a large family trust, which will yield millions to his many cousins when the eminent sale of a 25-acre tract of prime beachfront property takes place. They must first agree on a buyer, and even as Matt deals with his own problems, he dutifully presides over his extended family, most of whom are counting on the sale to ensure their financial security.

Clooney is one of those actors whose facial expressions can telegraph the story, and he’s on top of his game here as he goes through the stages of grief — sadness, pain, and the inevitable anger when Alex tells him that Elizabeth was unfaithful. Never prone to over-emotion, he opts for the understated, and the style tends to suit his characters as in “Michael Clayton.” Here it works for Matt as he tries to be strong for his family while he deals with his own emotions.

As a director, Payne is a master at balancing the unexpected absurdities that destiny dishes out amidst the grief and bewilderment of, in this case, losing a loved one. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Matt finally confronts Elizabeth’s lover, a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Also providing a little comic relief is Alex’s boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), who at first appearance seems like a smart-mouthed jerk but reveals himself over time to be a pretty good judge of character.

He is not the only dimensional character, as most of Payne’s cast undergoes a transformation by the film’s end. Alex, a typically rebellious teen, becomes her father’s co-conspirator and champion. And Matt finds his footing with his filial duties to daughters and kin. In all of their flawed humanity, Payne finds the balance between the poignant and the profane producing a film that is rich in nuance and realism that is found in the smaller roles, too,like Robert Forster, Matt’s father-in-law who hides his pain behind a gruff, ex-military exterior, and Judy Greer as Brian’s cheery, supportive wife. Even Beau Bridges shines in a tiny part as Matt’s cousin, an island lifer pushing the property sale.

“The Descendants” should be a shoo-in for Oscar nods in the major categories. It firmly deserves the honors, although expect stiff competition. My only hope is it doesn’t it doesn’t take Payne another five years to produce his next project.

This film is currently playing at the Landmark River Oaks Theater in Houston.