When we first meet Matt King (George Clooney), he’s just learned his wife suffered a water skiing accident and is in a coma. He must take care of their two daughters, a job in which his wife always excelled but, he quickly learns, he has little skill at. Then there’s the issue of Matt’s heritage, which goes back to Hawaiian royalty: he lives on Oahu but owns 35,000 acres of land on Kauai. Considering the value of the land, he’s at a crossroads on whether to sell the gorgeous property or to keep it, as he is a descendant of Hawaiians who knew the true value of family and their homeland.
Every couple of years, it seems that Hollywood inches closer to making a movie about modern day Hawaii and they’ve finally nailed it. I would have liked more time to focus on the locals and more talkin’ da kine in the dialogue but this is as perfect a movie you’d hope for about Hawaii today. Whether you live in Kahului or St. Louis, this movie will put you in a dreamy, giddy state. On top of the breathtaking cinematography, it has an all-ukulele and slack key guitar score from start to finish that is equally gorgeous.
The story is both really sad and tremendously funny; like Paul Theroux’s novel Hotel Honolulu, this is Hawaii through the eyes of a haole who grows to understand and appreciate the history and treasure that is his home and family. Director Alexander Payne made the terrific Election and About Schmidt but this is his finest film, a dark comedy that shapes a wonderful story, creates characters both colorful and entirely believable and sets it in Hawaii in a way we haven’t seen before. Never condescending to locals or dumbed down for mainlanders, this will be a breath of fresh air for both audiences.
Clooney hasn’t been this soulful since his under-looked turn in Solaris and he has a great monologue about how he’s “haole as shit” that made me want to applaud (though it’s just one of the great scenes here). Surf legend Laird Hamilton has a solid cameo in a character role (brah, you surf real good, but you really can act! Don’t quit your day job, but think about doing more movies!).
Robert Forster is quietly powerful as Clooney’s disproving father-in-law, Matthew Lillard, who plays a key role and has never been this good before. Judy Greer may finally win a best supporting actress award for her work here. Greer makes recognizably human a role that could have been an overbearing or foolishly clueless housewife.
Perhaps the conclusions the story comes to are a little too good to be true? Maybe it’s just that the screenplay never takes a wrong turn. The plot twists are deeply satisfying and truly surprising in ways that are optimistic, especially for a film about a man whose wife is in a coma.
Unfortunately, while the story takes place on The Big Island, Kauai and Oahu, there are no scenes set on Maui. Still, Maui audiences will have a unique perspective on this, a film that moved me with its compassion and visual splendor.
This is a comedy with heart that truly loves its characters, even when they don’t love themselves. Needless to say, this is one of the absolute best films of the year.
Rated R/115 Min