Alexander Payne has made a career of directing brilliant character pieces, usually based on relatively little known novels. Sideways and About Schmidt were fantastic sketches, following the warts and all Goya school of portraiture. The lead characters made no play for our sympathy, Jack Nicholson's shuffling cliché spouting widower and Paul Giamatti's break through role who see early on in the film stealing from his mother in order to finance a drink tripping with his soon to be married buddy, the decidedly nicer, but meatier headed Jack (Thomas Hayden Church). Any sympathy these characters manage to accrue is hard won and often won in spite of themselves. Giamatti never stops being a self-centred asshole, nor does Schmidt come to terms with his failing life, but they do gain wisdom and in the process our sympathy.
George Clooney begins Payne's first film in seven years with an overt grab at sympathy, or perhaps more accurately, he tries to avert our prejudices. People who live in Hawaii, that is to say paradise, still have problems, he pleads. His problems come to a head when his wife has a boating accident and falls into a coma which looks set to be terminal. He has to somehow reconnect with his daughters and see through an important business deal while at the same time somehow coming to grips with his own feeling. Clooney, as Matt King, is brilliant, a man for whom success has come to easily. He is ill-equipped for grief. When he has to run to his neighbour's house to confront them about something terrible, he runs in espadrilles, a silly duck-like trot. He is a man who has to have the worst moments in his life happen to him while he is wearing ridiculous shirts.
Shailene Woodley as his eldest daughter is fantastic also, as are some of the smaller roles, particularly pugnacious father-in-law Robert Foster. The comedy is genuinely sweet and the tragedy is genuinely bitter. In one moment of horrified realisation and anticipated grief, the camera looms into Matt's face which seems to be in the process of collapsing. It is a wonderful moment in a film that has more than its fair share of them.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.