Rated R for a lot of language, off-screen drug use, off-screen adultery, and mild violence. Also, you really have to be comfortable with your own mortality coupled with the mortality with the people around you to make it all the way through this movie. It's a gut punch and it's going to try to get you in all of the feels. I don't know if you can really make something R rated by that logic, but don't expect the lightest comedy from this outing. R.
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
Man, what a difference a decade makes. I'm 38 now. I have a wife and four kids. I thought that this was an okay movie a decade ago. I certainly didn't think it was worthy of an Oscar nom. Back then, I didn't know who Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were, let alone that I would consider Jim Rash to be a genius a couple of years later. But at 38, this movie hits and hits hard. It's not like I have Matt King's life in the least. I don't think that wife is cheating on me. I know that she's not in the hospital dying. I'm fairly certain that my kids don't live the lives of these kids. But this movie just ripped me apart this time. The funny thing is, despite the fact that I watched the same movie twice, it seemed like two very stories, despite the fact that the plot was what I remembered it being.
In my head, this was the story of obsessive Matt King and the fact that he is torn between stalking his spouse's lover and having to keep it together for his kids. When I watched this the first time, I thought about this was about a man's toxic elements consuming him until he realized he needed to let things go. Boy, I was wrong. Now, I know what this is going to make me sound like a bad person considering what I just said, but Matt King is kind of a flawed saint. Heck, I would probably do exactly what he did in a similar situation. Matt is hurting for the entire movie. From moment in the film, he is dealing with a spouse who is dying. While most movies deal with the crisis moment coming right before the climax, Matt has already dealt with his crisis moment before the movie even began. Elizabeth's accident was his Ebenezer Scrooge moment. He discovers that he has been lacking as a father and as a husband and he has committed to change. It's not that he was a bad guy before this. It's just that his priorities were all screwed up. Not evil or anything, but someone who has made small compromises and had to deal with the consequences of those compromises.
Now, in this world, Elizabeth is terrible and my wife is not. But I can see myself napalming the world given the situation. And when he discovers his wife's infidelity, that's where the new story begins. He made his choice and there's an almost Twilight Zone style irony to this discovery. He made this huge decision to become a better person and the universe dared him to renege on that decision. Sure, the movie becomes heartwarming after that. It's because of his wife's toxicity that these people come together. I feel like I'm going to go real sappy now and I really don't want to. But there's something that reminds me of the aftermath of World War II. All this tragedy and misery that anyone would avoid given an opportunity leads to something positively vital to society.
It is in this moment that I realize that this is a movie about bonding over shared toxicity. Matt is so disappointed Alexandra and in himself for letting Alexandra become the person she is. But when they realize that there's a reason for Alexandra's dark turn and that it is a shared mourning, that makes things oddly better. The rest of the movie becomes this very dangerous tightrope to walk. Matt knows that he has to be a better person than he wants to be. In my head, he wants to go scorched Earth on everyone. Scott, Elizabeth's father, is borderline begging to get ripped apart. He becomes this litmus test for how far a person can be pushed. The right thing to do would be to hold back, allow Scott mourn the death of his daughter by allowing Matt to be the punching bag. Yet, as an audience, that seems like a betrayal. Because Matt is our protagonist and avatar for going through the process of grieving, we want him to have a moment of catharsis that doesn't really come. It's that sacrificial element that we all experience in this moment. Because the movie really does have a happy ending, despite how depressing the film is. (Part of me kept rewriting the story in my head that allowed Elizabeth to wake up from the coma and the story oddly became more tragic, despite a miraculous recovery.)
But Matt's new goal isn't necessarily to find Brian, Elizabeth's lover. That's the quest he is on. In the same way that Frodo's quest is to destroy the One Ring, his real quest is to show that mortals are ultimately good and capable of resisting sin. Matt's quest is to find Brian, but his real goal is to ensure that Alexandra sees that the world doesn't need to be about revenge or indulging selfish goals. Those moments are so tempting and Matt even is on the verge of losing his soul in the process of the whole thing. That's what I really indulged the first time I watched this, not knowing the importance of being a good role model for the kids. When Matt confronts Brian at his cabin, he starts letting his true motivation peek through. But he still holds back. And that's when the temptation about the money becomes something that forms this new element of the story.
I know more about Hawaii now than I did a decade ago. I'm not saying I know everything, but I know something about the culture from podcasts and editorials. There is a really complicated cultural dynamic in Hawaii. I always thought of it as just another state, just far away and tropical. But Hawaii, um, maybe shouldn't be a U.S. state? Maybe it should be independent. The struggle exists between white people holding power and the indigenous people being seen as second class citizens. I know, what else is new? There's this story that is publicly about Matt's morality being on trial. Matt knows that his land is complicated. While legally his, there's something about the King family owning such a large plot of land in Hawaii that is kind of gross. Now, Matt's stance has always been on the low-key moral side. He kept the land as-is because it preserves the natural beauty of the landscape. But laws have forced his hand into deciding something that would be a morally neutral decision. But there are still consequences to this action. He has to sell the land, which would make him rich. But by selling the land, he is betraying the Hawaiian people and changing the entire dynamic of the region. And that is all going on while he's dealing with the medically dubious situation with his wife coupled with an affair that he just discovered. Any man would crumble under these situations. Matt doesn't come across as a hero, but he really is.
It's because of his real flawed reaction to everything is what makes this movie excellent. He is a good person and the movie intentionally rarely gives him credit for his good actions. Sure, the end at the family vote, there's that moment where we can pat him on the back. But the entire movie is this guy who is acting against his own self-interests and how the world turns out to be a better place because he did the right thing when the easy thing would be to do the wrong thing. God, I was so so wrong about this movie a decade ago. I knew it was okay, but the movie is kind of genius. It is a gorgeous film that acknowledges what privilege is about while stressing the importance of sacrificing oneself for others. Well done, movie. Well done.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.