Alexander Payne is both the most aptly-named director and the least accurate: His movies are all about people enduring a fair share of pain, but his default reaction is to find humor in that. It’s a great skill, of course, but one that he beats like a drum. So when his newest, The Descendants, works its story around a husband and father (George Clooney) faced with the twin tragedies of a wife in a coma and discovering she has been cheating on him … well, sometimes pain just needs to be pain. (Payne also loves the “road trip” plot, here and in Sideways and About Schmidt; I wonder if he would even know how to make a movie set in a boardroom.)
But if The Descendants traffics in familiar territory, at least Payne knows how to paint portraits of people that ring true. Certainly Clooney — proudly showing his age as a salt-and-pepper middle-aged dad juggling his own parental ineptitude and obligations as the family patriarch — brings the proper balance of heft and comic sensibility to the role of an emotionally detached man grappling, for the first time, with the realities of connecting with other people. Come to think of it, that describes just about every other movie Alexander Payne has made. He might not show much variety, but at least he knows his limitations.
The romantic triangle in The Descendants is between two men and a dead woman; in Breaking Dawn, Part 1 — the latest in the Twilight saga — it’s between a dead man (well, actually vampire Robert Pattinson) and another man (well, werewolf Taylor Lautner) and a woman (well, actually Kristen Stewart, who I think may be part mannequin). In this, the fourth film in the series, I think I may have finally figured out what I’ve missed all this time that every teenaged girl seemed to understand intuitively: The supernatural element is extraneous to the slow-moving romance between Bella and Edward (and the puppy-dog longing of Jacob). It’s kind of the point that nothing much happens over its two hours — if it did, it might shake you from your swoon.
A new director, Bill Condon, imposed a horror-film sensibility on all the treacle, giving us both the longest wedding sequence since The Godfather and the most harrowing childbirth since Rosemary’s Baby. If you can stomach author Stephanie Meyers’ didactically anti-abortion subtext — and can accept how Lautner keeps his shirt on most of the time — Breaking Dawn is actually the best entry in the series to date. Go figure.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.