The latest Alexander Payne outing, The Descendants, is based on a book, but unlike Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the book it is based on has not amassed an army of followers so ardent that they have their own moniker. The Descendants and Breaking Dawn were released on the same weekend. Undoubtedly one is making a play for an Oscar. Undoubtedly the other will dominate every MTV award category, including best kiss, best dude moment, best male shirtless scene, and whatever else the network that produces the Jersey Shore celebrates. The movies are in many ways very different. But both use sex as a submerged theme while on the surface promoting a wholesome idea of family values; both seem to devalue motherhood; and both deal with characters who are so financially secure that they are almost impossible to identify with. The Descendants is a much better film, but that is because it is not hampered by the precedent of an extremely successful book, a rabid fan base, and a studio that is out for green (so much so that they are willing to split the product into two films, even if it means stretching the material thin to the point of vapidity).
Alexander Payne likes his characters quirky, ugly, and pathetic. They are middle class. They are not in shape. They deal with death, and divorce, and affairs, and always in the ickiest ways: think Matthew Broderick preparing for an affair by washing his genitals in a motel, Jack Nicholson’s grotesque hot-tub scene with Kathy Bates, Thomas Haden Church sneaking back into the house where has just slept with another man’s wife only to hear the couple recounting the affair while having sex. Hardly anything is pretty in the typical Payne film. But The Descendants is not a typical Payne film. The movie takes place in Hawaii. It stars George Clooney. It features the gorgeous Shailene Woodley as his eldest daughter. It features her bikini so prominently that the two strips of material practically have a place on the cast list.
At the beginning of the film, Clooney’s character makes a disclaimer about Hawaii, saying that it isn’t full of people sitting about and enjoying themselves; it is full of suffering people who have to work for a living. But the movie proceeds to show exactly the opposite: Clooney doesn’t work, his daughters are taken out of school, and the whole lot get to relax at clubs and eat ice cream. They are trying to track down a man who had affair with Clooney’s wife—but this hunt takes them to all the most lavish island resorts, on islands that Clooney’s family happens to own. Everything, in short, is pretty. Everything is Payne-lite.
Of course, there’s trouble in paradise. Clooney’s character’s wife cheated on him. But, aside from thirty seconds at the beginning of the film, when we see her enjoying herself on some water skis, we never meet her. She spends the rest of the film in a coma. We hear about her love of boats and drinking. A few tears are shed. But every confrontation with her is necessarily one-sided. Everyone gets off easy: the cheating wife doesn’t have to answer for herself, and the wronged husband doesn’t have to be humiliated by a divorce. Life is simple in Hawaii; as it turns out, so is death.
Death comes pretty simply in the latest installment of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, too: the conceit allows the filmmakers to get away with murder, literally. Meyers has set her vampire story in adolescence (never mind that Edward is more than a hundred years old and could probably be Bella’s great-great-grandfather), and the constraints and abilities of the vampires become a metaphor for the emotional chaos of high school. In the first “Twilight” installment, Edward can’t kiss Bella because he is afraid that he will get so excited he’ll lose control of himself and suck her blood; for them, sex is tantamount to death. Not that this sense of decorum prevents Edward from killing evil vampires, or nearly murdering a group of young men whose rape-fixated thoughts he can psychically overhear. Edward has murdered, and in Breaking Dawn we learn that he has murdered lots.
Of course, a few other forbidden territories are broken in as well. The protagonists finally marry, having waited until the wise old age of eighteen, and since the book and the film dutifully show them being wed, they are then allowed to fuck each others’ brains out. For a film that claims to be sexually responsible, the “Twilight” movies are awfully dependent on teenage sex to attract viewers. The actors prance about like pieces of meat, their disturbingly developed bodies on full display; Taylor Lautner’s rippling teenage chest is just a little better than the child beauty-pageant stars at the end of Little Miss Sunshine. The fans have divided themselves into teams (Team Jacob and Team Edward) and, considering that they already know the outcome of the love triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob, the choice of a team can mean little more than—well, you can imagine.
Not that sex leads to anything splendid when it finally does happen: Bella (spoiler alert!) becomes pregnant with a vampire that apparently develops to birth size within weeks, requires her to drink blood, and is eating her from the inside. This terrifying picture of pregnancy culminates with Bella’s rival lovers giving her a C-section, as if they are playing some perverse adolescent game of doctor.
Motherhood is the fall guy in The Descendants, too. It’s revealed early on that the daughter hates her mother because she caught her mother cheating; it is the daughter, in fact, who reveals the affair to her father and aids in the hunt for the other man. The mother remains comatose, and the movie suggests that the adulteress got what she deserved. Not even her lover, when he finally surfaces, loves her.
Bella initially fares little better; despite the boys’ best efforts, she dies in childbirth. But not to worry! She can be saved by being turned into a vampire, a recourse not available to most teen moms. But then again, those “Twilight” creators know how to get their blood—and eat it, too.