What happens when a depressed, failed writer, missing his wife two years after divorce, is told she is getting remarried? He grabs a bottle of wine, unseals the cork with his mouth and runs down a slope, not failing to gulp down some wine. “Sideways” with wonderful actors like Paul Giametti and Thomas Haden, puts this tragicomedy across with great effect.
How does a middle aged man react when dealing with his wife’s impending death, suddenly discovers she had plans of leaving him for another man? He puts on his sneakers and runs across the road, in an ungainly fashion, like a man …. well,.... like a man who has lost his wife. George Clooney, an unlikely persona, performs this with aplomb in “The Descendants”.
What does a 66 year old man go through when he is suddenly confronted with huge emptiness after a retirement followed by his wife’s death and nothing to hang onto except a superficial relationship with his daughter who is about to marry? He drives out in a 35 ft vehicle, sleeps on top of it, talks to the stars, makes drunken passes and writes letters to a six year old orphan who cannot read or write. Jack Nicholson cuts a lonesome figure with his pretence at a normal life in “About Schmidt”.
More such uncomfortable questions are raised by Oscar winning director Alexander Payne in his last three movies. What do these men inherit or leave behind? Money? Land? Happy memories? Something meaningful? Do they buy cheap caskets for the wife’s dead body and believe that’s a wife’s worth? Are they men who fear intimacy and are doomed to midlife lonely existence?
These are heavy issues that Alexander Payne’s characters deal with and we see them closely examined with great finesse and clarity through the lenses up close and both personal and impersonal. The personal understanding gives us a glimpse of their pain and lost souls and a careful impersonal objective storytelling through juxtaposition of other funny, weird yet real characters bring out a strange humour in a poignant situation, masterfully crafted by Payne. He uses the structure of road movies effectively to show each one’s journey of self evaluation and growth. The locations and surroundings and even the vehicle used in "About Schmidt" take on a character of their own and are used beautifully to reflect the emotions.
Matt’s journey in “The Descendants”, starts literally on the road with his long run after his mother-hating teenager daughter reveals the truth and later continues with a flight to another island, to face the wife’s lover and in effect himself and his failings as a husband. In a moment of rage at the hospital, he screams at his half dead unresponsive bedridden wife, “You said I wasn’t in touch with my feelings, that I need therapy..”.These words are most revealing of his nonexistent relationship, which he was blissfully unaware of until it takes an accident and death to make him face the brutal reality. “The Descendants” is the story of a middle aged average American who has lived a so called honest life, but does not know how to be a husband or a father. Matt is shown, eventually reacting to every situation like a regular human being coping with tough tragic circumstances, dealing with unruly daughters and learning to forgive his wife once he has vent his anger and confronted the wife’s lover. In a moving concluding scene, he sits by his wife’s bedside, kisses her and tells her, “Goodbye Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy, Goodbye.” The writing is made even richer in the form of the most important character: the comatose, speechless wife. She is a great metaphor for feelings untold and unexpressed, lying on the bed, challenging the man to do something, to save whatever is left.
Matt King’s character follows the pattern of most male characters in Alexander Payne’s prior movies, “Sideways” and “About Schmidt”. All are deeply flawed, almost selfish and disconnected from their women. They are about men, where they are about to lose their women or have lost them and each one ends up realizing the importance of women in their lives.
In “About Schmidt”, Warren starts the journey with letters and continues through a road trip in a huge van bought at the insistence of his wife, now dead. It is about a man missing his job, missing his wife, missing his daughter about to be married and realising how much he has missed out on life by not doing that one thing that would make difference to somebody in the world. A similar scene of waking up to reality as in “The Descendants”, shows Schmidt, a repressed conformist, mourning his wife’s death, smelling her perfume, her clothes when he discovers old love letters. Battling mixed feelings of rage, pain and restlessness, he drives out in a huge 35 ft vehicle, larger than a bus, bought at his wife’s insistence ironically and embarks on a lone journey, the loneliness more marked against the ludicrous large vehicle. He eventually comes to a point of forgiveness as he sits gazing at the stars in the dark, talking to his wife. “What did you really think of me? Was I really the man you wanted to be with ?.. I let you down..I’m sorry, can you forgive me?”
Unlike the two films, there is “Sideways”, a much more complete, satisfying film, again about two men who are trying to escape their fears and feelings. Miles’ introduction starts off somewhat as a liar who makes up excuses for being late, even steals money from his mother’s drawer and has a friend who has decided to live a lie for a week before his wedding and actually starts believing the lie, thinking he is in love. Yet the beauty is that Payne treats these characters with such understanding that you don’t dislike them at all.
One starts viewing them with compassion as one travels down the beautiful wine countryside along with them, enjoying the conflict created by opposing desires of each. Miles, wants to show his friend, Jack, the wine countryside and but Jack, a washed out TV actor about to be married, wants to bed the first woman in sight and his sole mission is to get Miles laid too. He sees sex as the solution for every depression. When he does get it , he ends up with a broken nose, a frozen naked body running on the street chased by an angry husband, and crying like a baby ,shit scared of losing his fiancée and wants to go home.
His brash all confident behavior is offset by Miles’ reluctant response to the lovely, sensuous Maya (Virgnia Madsen), laced with slow, heady, intoxicating conversations about wine, made more intimate than a lovemaking scene would be.
The surroundings are used extremely well to set off the characters’ inner turmoil. In “The Descendants”, the lush, green Hawaiian island with clear blue water defy Matt’s inner conflict.
Likewise we have Miles who is in the company of the most beautiful, glowing, warm woman in a romantic locale, discussing the intricacies of delicious wine and is unable to enjoy a free soulful intimate evening.
In “About Schmidt” and “The Descendants”, the men come face to face with harsh reality when their daughters bring out their lack of fatherly presence in the open. Schmidt stands uncomfortable and unsure as his daughter asks him, “You have an opinion about my life now?”We don’t see much change in him as towards the end, he gives a wedding speech that he doesn’t mean just the way he obeyed his wife even though he didn’t want to.
With each film, the central actor with his masterful characterization and performance makes you care, makes you think about his world and what could be the best solution. Clooney makes you cry with his parting lines to his wife, Nicholson makes you swallow bittersweet tears with his final expression in the end, Miles makes you squirm as he shifts and fumbles uncomfortably during the most cozy conversation at a first date.
Overall, each one leaves one with warm poignancy. On a happier note, “Sideways” makes you want to have Pinot with your lover. “The Descendants” makes you want to snuggle together with your children under a blanket, have ice-cream and watch TV. “About Schmidt” makes you appreciate what you have and want to fund a child with an NGO.
All road trips worth taking.
Small scenes to watch out for Payne’s special touch:
A sequence of cross dissolves,as Miles flirts with Maya, drinks too much, becomes distant and then goes and calls his wife,with varied close-ups of his expressions as he moves to and fro,talking in drunken anger.
Best line:“I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlott.”
A late night quiet conversation between Matt and his daughter’s idiotic boyfriend, Sid,that changes one’s perception of Sid.
Warren, sitting alone, talking to stars in the dark sky that looks like a canopy covering him.