Alexander Payne has made a career directing and writing films centred on dysfunctional men: men who are unable to take responsibility for themselves or their actions, men who are ultimately directionless.
Hawaii inhabitant Matt King (George Clooney) is one such man. A largely absent father, he is forced to answer to his responsibilities, whilst questioning his failings, when his wife is plunged into a coma after a speedboat accident. Through his wife’s absence, Matt realises the numerous troubles his two daughters are experiencing. Spending time with his youngest daughter, he realises he knows very little about her: unaware of her various food preferences, nor the manner in which she treats her classmates at school.
His oldest daughter Alex (a wonderfully acerbic Shailene Woodley) an apparently troubled, substance-abusing 17-year old, is sent to boarding school when her parents can’t deal with her. Brought home by Matt when he realises the extent of his wife’s condition, Alex is baffled by her father’s oblivious nature, angrily informing him of her mother’s infidelity.
Simultaneously, he is compelled through his status as trustee to a family foundation to decide what should be done with an expanse of land beloved by the indigenous people and equally desired by real estate developers.
Matt, despite his obvious difficulties, is not an easy character to empathise with: his all-too apparent wealth generates little in the way of real hardship. If it were not for Clooney’s performance, subtly imbued with moments of real pathos, the film would have surely felt ultimately empty. Payne sidesteps this issue of wealth and empathy with a well-placed opening voice-over from Clooney, summarised as: this may look like paradise, but every individual experiences the same loss and the same moments of suffering.
Beautifully shot, Payne’s direction is at all times carefully measured and often sharply amusing. Much of the humour stems from the often absurd nature of Matt’s predicament and his interactions with his daughters, both of whom are, typically, often wise beyond their years.
Despite this Payne’s film is guilty of moments of overindulgence on occasions, and it is these moments which ultimately let the film down. Alex is supposedly a wayward daughter, yet there is little real evidence of this. Matt is rather too genteel to be believable when he discovers his wife’s infidelity. Payne’s film is, essentially, for all its illusions, rather empty, with little emotional gravitas to truly root its narrative.