Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight
Clooney leads the kids (from left, Krause, Miller, and Woodley) on a mission to find his rival.
The Dinner : Mahi Mahi,


George Clooney's Sunny Grief Odyssey Includes Dinner in Wallingford

Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight
Clooney leads the kids (from left, Krause, Miller, and Woodley) on a mission to find his rival.
The Dinner: Mahi Mahi, at Hawaiian Breeze (1719 N. 45th St.).

The Movie: The Descendants, at Guild 45th (2115 N. 45th St.)

The Screenplate: The holy grail of this Dinner & a Movie column is to perfectly match film and meal in the same neighborhood, preferably within walking distance. An even higher and more difficult objective is to see both a good picture and enjoy a good restaurant; and it is rare to accomplish both challenges in an evening. So in perhaps my most successful D&M excursion in the past two-odd years, I managed to pair the Hawaii-set The Descendants with a Hawaiian eatery only two blocks west in Wallingford. The movie, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, etc.) and starring George Clooney, I expected to like, since most of the early reviews from New York were raves. But located in a modest storefront, Hawaiian Breeze was a total unknown to me. I've probably walked past 100 times and never once ventured in. Yet when I first opened the door, unlike the full movie theaters that will be playing The Descendants right through Christmas and likely to the Oscars, Hawaiian Breeze was totally empty. An hour before closing on a rainy weeknight, I was the only customer, which is usually an ominous sign...

Apart from perfect geographic proximity, I was drawn to Hawaiian Breeze because--unlike the stereotypical notions of an untroubled island idyll that the movie shoots down in its first scenes--it's not too fancy. Hawaii is expensive. Hawaiian vacations are expensive. And we mainlanders somehow imagine that everyone there is living as if at a luxury resort. Not so, says Clooney's Matt King, an attorney of considerable inherited wealth (from both colonists and native royalty), who lives well below his means. His initial voiceover is accompanied by Payne's montage of the traffic, congestion, blight, and homeless population that makes Honolulu look about as glamorous as the San Fernando Valley. "Paradise can go fuck itself," says King with no small amount of bitterness, since his wife lies in a coma following a boating accident. In her hospital room, ever the workaholic, he pores through legal documents--many having to do with the land on Kauai that his extended family may sell for a half-billion dollars. Yet King lives only off the income from his legal practice, he tells us; he refused to buy his wife her own boat; he doesn't drive a fancy car; and he resents the $35,000 annual tuition he's paying to his teen daughter's private school--essentially rehab--to keep her out of further trouble.

For that reason, since King is the kind of guy who eats his lunch at his desk out of Tupperware containers, I think he'd like Hawaiian Breeze, where the menu tops out at $16.95. The six-year-old joint is run by Karen Law and Junko Yamamoto, who recently opened a fancier sushi place, Shima Sushi, just around the corner on Wallingford. (It appears they share a kitchen, and you can also order from the Shima menu at the Breeze.) With the one wall covered in ersatz woven bamboo mat, with a few framed postcards and ukuleles hung thereto, it doesn't look like an upscale Maui restaurant but the kind of place where its staff would go to eat. During my solitary visit, a book for my companion, there is no Don Ho music playing--just a college basketball game on the TV, volume muted. The (only) friendly server takes my order for the small grilled Mahi Mahi plate with rice and veggies ($12.50) and a pint of Longboard lager ($4) from the Kona Brewing Co.

The result (pictured above) is fresh and tangy, clearly prepared in a kitchen that knows how to handle seafood. In both their adjoining restaurants, Law and Yamamoto emphasize the Asian side of Pacific Rim cuisine. It's a little tidier than the polyglot plate-lunch mash-ups of the Hawaiian Islands proper. But if you really want the macaroni salad, you can order the deluxe version of the Mahi Mahi. The vegetables are crisp, not overdone, and the rice sticks neatly into its orbs without being too gooey or humid. If I went in with low expectations, the Breeze quickly won me over. And as Wallingford residents surely know, the place does lunch and take-out, even if you're not lingering to see a movie after the meal.

The Descendants is an easier sell with a higher pedigree. Apart from star and director, author Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 debut novel was well reviewed. (Look for her in the film as King's secretary.) And who doesn't love a holiday-season, Oscar-friendly movie that endorses family and land preservation? If you've seen the poster or the trailer, you're already on its side.

And yet, the film isn't a simple, ennobling grief-wallow. Awkwardness and comedy keep intruding on the pathos. King, it emerges, has used the excuse of work, his pride in modest self-sufficiency, to keep his wife and daughters at a distance. When it's revealed that his comatose spouse was having an affair, he's shocked at first. Then, gradually, it all begins to make sense. His older daughter (Shailene Woodley) already knew--one reason for her drinking and misbehavior. The 10-year-old (Amara Miller) never finds out--mainly because her father and older sis form a tacit contract to preserve her foul-mouthed innocence just a bit longer. And if King is an angry cuckold who decides to pursue and meet his wife's lover, he keeps his reasons to himself. "We don't share personal stuff with strangers," he declares. This hapa-haole still has WASP missionary blood in his veins. He's a signer and executor of contracts, yet the Polynesian side of his ancestry places greater weight on family, land, and tradition. That conscience, like his wife, lies dormant.

Also resisting the potential melodrama is Payne's insistence on including and dignifying characters who seem, at first, to be morons. (Think back to Laura Dern's paint-huffing heroine in Citizen Ruth or Thomas Haden Church's adulterous actor in Sideways.) King has to deal not only with his wife's ornery father (the excellent Robert Forster), but also his elder daughter's irritating stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause), who accompanies the family on King's quest to confront his rival. Who, as it turns out, is played by comic actor Matthew Lillard in a performance that conveys both shallowness and sincere regret. He, a real-estate broker who stands to profit from the King family's land sale, foolishly allowed King's wife to fall in love with him. And King, so busy with that deal, foolishly allowed her to fall out of love with him. By the end of the film, you realize that both men have experienced a genuine loss.

But the movie is Clooney's, and it is he and Payne who'll be receiving the Oscar nominations next year. That acclaim will impart more glamor to a film that, like all Payne's past work, resists hyperbole. A native of Omaha, he seems to have modeled the character of King partly on his fellow Nebraskan Warren Buffett, the humble billionaire who advocates modesty and principled thrift. What are some of his lessons, as they might apply to The Descendants? Hold on to things of mundane yet lasting value. Don't make decisions in haste. And don't be fooled by a premium price tag, when better goods may be found for less just around the corner. Hawaiian Breeze fits that bill, as more Guild 45th patrons should discover.

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