Love, Lust, and Loss in Paradise
Today we review two new releases, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part1 and The Descendants.
What strange, contradictory things the Twilight movies are. They, and the Stephenie Meyer vampire books they are based on, inspire such wild, hormone-soaked fervor and yet, on their own merits, they're such drippy bores. Rarely has romance ever seemed so exhaustingly dull and sexless, so sterile and, in a dumbed down sense, theoretical. There are no guts, no details, nothing more carved or created than a big flat slab of Love, just boring earnest love, in these movies. Well, OK, to be fair, now there is sex.
Yes, sex! Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (there's gonna be one more next year) opens, for those of you lucky enough to not be within earshot of a teenage girl and/or condo-dwelling HR employee, with a wedding. Our two heroes, human Bella (Kristen Stewart) and vamp-hunk Edward (Robert Pattinson), are getting hitched at the tender ages of 18 and approximately 120, because Edward is an old fashioned fellow and he wants to wait until they're married before they... turn Bella into a vampire. Ha, what did you think I wast talking about? But yes, that Meyer chooses the terrible pains of becoming an undead bloodthirsty nightmare creature to be her metaphor for sex is more than a little telling of this story's curious and frustratingly retrograde sexual politics, which we'll get more into in a bit. But first the wedding. This newest Twilight movie is directed by the increasingly garish Bill Condon, a man whose Gods & Monsters and Kinsey too often let us forget that he also directed Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and the almost vulgarly tone deaf Dreamgirls, and in the wedding scenes his taste for opulent, presentational emptiness is on full display. Bella is swathed in white, there are dangling garlands of white flowers hanging from somewhere, red petals dot the ground like blood drops (get it?). This girl is a virgin, is the obtuse message, and this is her most important day. There's an air of terror about it, as if we're supposed to brace ourselves for the awful pains to come, meaning sex.
There is actually a scene in this movie in which Jacob (Taylor Lautner), another of Bella's men (along with Edward and her dad), gets furious at the idea of the married couple having sex. Not because he is jealous (he is) but because the sexual coupling of vampire and human is very dangerous, there is a legitimate fear that Edward might quite literally screw her to death. That any adult involved saw fit to include this bizarre, sex-shaming allegory in this movie, which is being chiefly consumed by teenage girls who should be being taught very different lessons about sex, just goes to show how far Stephenie Meyer's intoxicating influence has spread. Though really this fight, and most conflict in the movie, ultimately doesn't matter. Bella and Edward are going to have sex, and that's why the bulk of the adults in the audience are there. They want to see these two seemingly genital-less beings copulate in this series' soft-tone style.
When it finally gets there, it will (or at least did at one particular screening) elicit more than a few giggles. And that's because Condon shapes the first half of his movie as a very direct and unsubtle slope upward toward this moment. Stylistically, it's a bit easy. But narratively, or rather as far as the viewer's expectations for this movie, it's appreciated. Easy to follow road signs are always a help, and from scene one (which, rather functionally, involves Taylor Lautner removing his shirt) we know exactly where at least part of this movie is headed: To a bed on an island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro where the two love birds -- quiet, dead-eyed doves -- will make the beast with two porcelain backs. The movie could have ended at this climax (heh) and more than likely we would have all been satisfied. Not that there's anything particularly sexy about the whole thing. Kristen Stewart has chipmunky, chestnutty good looks and Robert Pattinson has quite a head of hair and Condon shoots the landscapes of their smooth bodies as lovingly as he does the actual physical terrain, but these two ciphers are so far removed from any semblance of humanity, they function so wholly as merely a collection of a small few wants, that the sexy scenes are not unlike watching a child mash Barbie and Ken dolls together to simulate baby making. If you want to get bothered during the love scenes, and maybe you do, it might help to think about how these two young movie stars are a couple in real life. But without that infusion of meta reality, what's on screen is as sexless as a movie gun battle, and with far less banging.
OK, so that's out of the way. The sex stuff. Over and done. What's next? Well, not terribly much. The gist is that Bella gets pregnant with a swiftly growing half-vampire baby, something no one thought possible, and the rest of the tale (which, again, is only Part 1 of a book split in half) involves everyone fretting over her health and, to a lesser extent depending on the character doing the fretting, the health of the baby. Not to spoil, but just know that it's highly unlikely that Part 2 of this story would not involve the protagonist. To wit, she doesn't die. And there is a baby. The carrying of the baby to term, which seems to take about a month, serves as the narrative dais from which Meyer, and in complicity Condon and the screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, delivers a startlingly direct and uncovered anti-abortion sermon. Oh yes, the movie goes there. Sure the word "abortion" is never said, but every time one character refers to "the fetus" and another, Nikki Reed's raped-to-death vampire Rosalie, sternly corrects them and says "baby," it's pretty clear what everyone's talking about. There is no mistaking where this movie's reproductive rights politics lie. That thing, excuse me that baby, is coming out, whether it kills mama or not. And that's how Bella wants it, because, y'know, she's our hero. And that's what heroes do, girls.
So. That's the lay of the land up there in Forks. All of the bad, and I mean really bad, ideology of the film aside, how is it as a movie? Well, it's pretty boring. Condon tries his hardest and does manage to work in some genuinely funny bits (mostly at the wedding, mostly involving the terrific but underutilized Anna Kendrick, playing Bella's best mortal friend) and a handful of neat visuals, but he is ultimately powerless against the lack of storytelling momentum and terrible pacing that Meyer has hardwired into this saga. A large chunk of the movie is spent sitting around and waiting, by both the characters and the audience. There is no swirl or spark or giddy rush of first love as there was at least a glimmer of way long ago in the first film. No, here it is all ceremonial, missionary-position lovemaking and then the tough, gritty consequences (consider yourselves warned, young ladies!) that follow. What an oddly cynical endeavor this movie ends up being. If this is post-honeymoon wedded bliss, I'd hate to see what the seven year itch looks like.
Speaking of bliss, man, how about Hawaii, huh? That most curious of American states provides the achingly gorgeous setting for Alexander Payne's new film The Descendants, a charming wisp of a movie based on the same-titled novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. In it, George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian man, white but with a strong strain of native blood in him, who is dealing, all at once, with three life-defining situations. His wife, a mostly virtual character named Elizabeth, has been in a speedboating accident and is in a coma from which she will never wake up. He has two daughters, quirky little spitfire Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), whom he has to both break the news to and figure out how to raise on his own. And his family, all the descendants of a Hawaiian queen, is selling off a huge portion of land on Kauaʻi that will earn them millions, but will also allow for the destruction of one of the state's last stretches of undeveloped coastline. To make matters worse, Alexandra informs Matt that his wife has been cheating on him, with a realtor of all people (a charming and surprisingly welcome Matthew Lillard). He's got a plateful, to be sure.
Which is why it's so nice that Payne, one of the best American filmmakers working today in this critic's humble opinion, handles all of these big plot points with such delicacy, grace, and ease. We certainly see Matt sweat -- there is a lot of running in the film, running as both a sign of urgency and a way to showcase time's breaking down of the body -- but the movie itself never appears to be straining to make all these elements work in symphony. The slow, unspectacular demise of Elizabeth is handled with a blue, hushed sort of poetic inevitability -- we're all going that way someday -- and the pricklier parts, the wisecracking daughters and the comic hunt to track down this cuckolding realtor, are done with Payne's usual brand of elegant staccato. His movies are funny but they never quite feel like comedies. (Well, maybe Election does, but that was before Payne turned into an old softie.) While silly things happen, they always feel organic to the just slightly hyperbolized world Payne has created. He's a thorough filmmaker, and thus rarely strikes a discordant or out-of-place note.
And his casting! Oh his casting. There are a bunch of Hawaiian locals in the movie, which lends the picture a homey, lived-in feel. But Payne's bigger name actors also dim their own glows just enough to fit into this small picture of decent people trying to do decent things. George Clooney is, at this point, a shoe-in for a glut of awards season accolades this year, as his performance is so gentle and so kind that he manages to get through the entire film without any hint of the ol' George Clooney smirk and wink. He's completely believable as a bored, kinda schlumpy dad. Would any of us have imagined that possible around the time of the first Ocean's Eleven movie? As the daughters, Miller and Woodley both do naturalistic, idiosyncratic work. Woodley especially is quite a find. While Payne and his co-writers (Groundlings writing partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) sometimes give Alexandra a bit too many teen-tart things to say, Woodley is wholly convincing as a good kid who just needs to be a little wild for a while. Nick Krause is wonderful as Alexandra's secretly smart doofy stoner friend Sid, and Robert Forster, playing Matt's father-in-law, gives the gruff old dad character a nice amount of shading. Toward the end of the story, Judy Greer shows up for one scene and practically walks off with the movie -- I really hope she gets the attention she deserves from this. And Clooney, again, is terrific. I never thought that seeing George Clooney cry would be so effective, but there it is.
All that said, The Descendants -- a movie about the simple and noble act of living -- feels, despite its serious themes of mortality and legacy, like a slighter work when compared to Payne's Sideways or his true masterpiece About Schmidt. This movie is funny in a way those movies aren't quite funny. There are laughs in all of them, but here they feel less autumnal; they're greener. Maybe that's owed to the lush setting of the film, photographed beautifully by Phedon Papamichael, but it's also, I think, because this is a more gently hopeful movie than those decidedly downbeat American road pictures. If Sideways bitingly told us to find life, and About Schmidt mournfully told us to appreciate it, The Descendants simply shrugs its shoulders and tells us to live it.