(This review was originally published on November 18, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
Alexander Payne has an affinity for bringing complex literary characters to life in situations of conflict, compromise and absurdity. This was best exemplified in 2004′s “Sideways”, a snarky little gem that effectively walked the line between comedy and tragedy. His first film in seven years, “The Descendants”, reflects Payne’s clever, if slightly awkward perspective on life, crafting an inspiring and comical story around a rather grim premise.
The film is about tolerance, reconciliation, and self-discovery. Like most of Payne’s work, “The Descendants” exudes an attitude of its own, a kind of disgruntled anxiety, and the director’s trademark style seems to mimic the emotions of his characters. George Clooney plays Matt King, a man faced with a barrage of unfortunate events and challenging decisions. After his wife is left in a coma from a boating accident near where they live in Hawaii, King finds himself solely responsible for his two daughters, a job that the self-proclaimed ‘backup parent’ is ill-equipped for. As King realizes how truly out of touch he is with his girls, he must face the possibility that their mother won’t be recovering from her injuries. In addition, Matt is burdened with a difficult decision regarding a massive plot of family land on a neighboring island that has remained undeveloped but grown immensely valuable. As the community waits with bated breath to find out if he will sell, King struggles to cope with the realities of parenthood.
For characters adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, I couldn’t imagine a more fitting director than Payne, whose screenplay translates almost like the work of a playwright. Roughly three minutes into the film (which begins with Clooney’s rolling narration), we already begin to empathize (or sympathize, depending on your experience) with a man who has unwittingly become irrelevant to his own family. And at first, there seems to be no limit to what can go wrong in his life. This is the reason why Payne’s screenplays are consistently so effective, because he begs us to consider both the best and worst case scenarios, and that’s really what he accomplishes here.
Clooney seems like a good bet for an Oscar nod, especially since Payne serves up Best Actor winners like a cheese plate at the craft services table(Jack Nicholson for “About Schmidt” and Thomas Haden Church for “Sideways”). And it pays off, though objectively he doesn’t stray too far from the stability of familiar roles. The biggest surprise in the movie is Shailene Woodley in a breakout performance as King’s oldest daughter Alexandra. A bit of an enigma, King can’t decipher her rebellious attitude and apparent disdain she has for her comatose mother. That is, until Alexandra reveals to Matt that mom had been cheating on him.
While adding insult to injury seems to be a prerequisite for Payne’s films, it results in something refreshingly different in “The Descendants”. As the once clueless father begins to mend his relationship with his girls (Amara Miller is terrific as his younger daughter Scottie), the family embarks on an unlikely island-hopping journey to locate the man his wife has been having an affair with (Matthew Lillard). With Alexandra’s dopey but lovable friend Sid in tow (a hysterical Nick Krause, who I predict we’ll be seeing a lot more of), the story manages to find some comic magic amidst a minefield of misfortune. Clooney avoids a one-note character by inserting some of his goofier qualities from “Burn After Reading”, but it’s really the relationship between Matt and Alexandra that makes the film work.
“The Descendants” is the type of movie that will be received based heavily on the mood of its audience. Balancing the thematic elements with some visual flair, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael lends a splendid canopy of Hawaiian landscape to a drama that might otherwise seem a little aesthetically drab. In painting a picture very similar to that of Hemmings’ novel, Payne’s story is highlighted by an exclusively Hawaiian soundtrack.
While arthouse films sometimes drive their behavioral studies into yawn-inducing obscurity and often lack resolution(“Margot at the Wedding”, “Another Year”, to name a few), “The Descendants” is real enough to sustain a mix of compassion and humor throughout. Though not as funny as “Sideways”, the movie is similar in its progression of snowballing events and creates its own uncomfortable vibe that is vital to the relatability of the characters.
In the end, “The Descendants” is a cheeky glass-half-full observation of a family that is more fortunate than it initially realizes. Where many of these tragedy-turn-self-discovery films tend to linger, “The Descendants” doesn’t overstay its welcome.