Mike White triumphs with “The White Lotus” and we revisit his other masterpiece “Enlightened”

With very little trickling out of Hollywood in the era of COVID and its delta variant (although the latter months of 2021 should see the movie release schedule step up dramatically) the choice of new films at the box office and for streaming has been minimal. The action is on TV, particularly on HBO Max, where Mike White’s marvelous, six-episode miniseries “The White Lotus” debuted in early July. Like those great 1940’s film noirs “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past”, the series begins at the end. We are at a Hawaiian airport, and a body is being placed on a plane to be flown back to the mainland. We learn from Shane (Jake Lacy) that the death occurred at a luxury hotel called The White Lotus. The action then unfolds in flashback over a one-week period.

Shane, it turns out, is a one-percenter and the flashback begins with him and his fellow VIPs arriving on a boat to the fabulous resort where the staff awaits nervously on the shore – there are obvious echoes, throughout, of “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”, but the emphasis here is firmly on the upstairs crowd. And what a crowd it is. The to-the-manor-born Shane is on his honeymoon with his journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), their whirlwind romance having just skyrocketed her into his social milieu. There’s a family, headed by CEO Connie Britton and her beta husband Steve Zahn, their cellphone-addicted son (Fred Hechinger) and their cynical and vaguely hostile daughter (Sydney Sweeney) who has brought along a friend (Brittany O’Grady) of undetermined ethnicity and background, who, initially, appears to be her puppet but who soon develops a mind of her own. And then there is the wonderful Jennifer Coolidge doing something transcendent with her character; a lonely woman who has come to scatter her domineering mother’s ashes. This exceedingly high-maintenance bunch are catered to by the hotel ‘s long-suffering manager Armond and his overworked staff. A recovering alcoholic, who is always in danger of falling off the wagon, Armond, as portrayed by Murray Bartlett, becomes more interesting and sympathetic with each successive scene.

Sumptuously shot in a “Leave Her to Heaven” meets “South Pacific” Leon Shamroy palette – the series was filmed at The Four Seasons, Maui at Wailea – the tension is heightened by an inventive if sometimes overwhelming, Polynesia meets Hitchcock score, courtesy of Cristobal Tapia de Veer. Despite Armond’s initial warning that the guests are “crazy”, as the week proceeds, we find several dysfunctional relationships building between the staff and their patrons. One of the most absorbing involves Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the manager of the hotel’s spa and the series’ nicest character who, against her better judgement, becomes friendly with Coolidge’s character Tanya when she offers to finance Belinda in a new business venture. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, the power dynamic is always inching into their scenes together. This makes us, the audience, uncomfortable, as we sense that Belinda can only get hurt when the flighty and attention-deficient, but genuinely well-meaning Tanya moves on to something and/or somebody else. In fact, one the remarkable things about White’s writing is that none of the characters, no matter how obnoxious, are completely unsympathetic.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect. There is a plot twist in episode five involving Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) the native Hawaiian luau dancer, which seems at once forced and too easy. But, with just one more episode to go, it has been a marvelous ride. And this just in: “THE WHITE LOTUS” has been renewed by HBO Max for a second series of six episodes, this time featuring a different hotel location and a different cast. It could go on indefinitely!

Having been so thoroughly impressed by “THE WHITE LOTUS” I felt compelled to check out Mike White’s other masterwork for television “ENLIGHTENED” which I missed (ouch!) on its original two-season run back in 2011- 2013. Every bit as good as its successor, it stars a pre-Oscar winning Laura Dern (who co-created the series with White) as Amy, a Los Angeles (well, to be more specific, Riverside) card-carrying liberal who desperately wants to do good in this world but gets sidetracked by some very deep personality flaws. For openers, she is narcissistic and needy. Difficult to be around, she makes the people in her life miserable even, in the pilot episode, when she returns, “cured”, from a stint at a New Age commune in Hawaii, following a nervous breakdown at forty. Dern does stunning work here, allowing us to see how unbearable and selfish Amy can be – kudos to Luke Wilson, Diane Ladd and Mike White who suffer so convincingly as Amy’s ex-husband, mother and office co-worker, respectively. Yet, as we blissfully follow her through 18 episodes, we see that, way deep down inside, she actually is the idealist she claims to be. This is a television series where the viewer and the central character are both treated with the utmost of respect. A parade of great directors from Jonathan Demme to Todd Haynes to Nicole Holofcener to Miguel Arteta to White himself (six episodes) steer us beautifully to the final episode which ends on just the right note.

BOTH THE WHITE LOTUS AND ENLIGHTENED ARE AVAILABLE FOR STREAMING ON HBOMAX.

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