The Descendants: A Review

The Descendants – Dir: Alexander Payne; *ing: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard

Ties that bind

First, a warning: you probably need to be familiar with and fond of director Alexander Payne’s earlier work in order to really ‘get’ The Descendants. At the same time though, if you are, the film might also feel a little toothless in comparison to, say, the hardnosed black comedy of Citizen Ruth (1996), the acid-tongued Election (1999), or even the tart melancholia of About Schmidt (2002). For what we have here is the kinder, gentler Payne of Sideways (2004), his last major directorial venture. It’s been seven years since and he only seems to have mellowed further, which is not necessarily a bad thing – Payne still knows better than many how to work with actors, and his eye for emotional detail is as astute as ever – but one does miss that sharp edge of his, which is much softer here.

Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants, like Schmidt before it, explores themes of loss, pain, and redemption, but adds to the mix its characters’ struggles with notions of belonging and loyalty, to people, places, and identity. Matt King (Clooney), a well-to-do but frugal lawyer whose family has lived and owned prime development estate in Hawaii for generations, is at a strange and harrowing crossroads: his wife is in an irreversible coma after a boating accident and in line to be removed from life support, he has only the most cursory of relationships with his two daughters (“I’m the back-up parent, the understudy”), and his is the deciding vote in the family’s plan to sell off the ancestral land to commercial developers. Already forced to contend with matters he has presumably steered well clear of for most of his life, when Matt is informed by troubled elder daughter Alex (Woodley) that his wife had been unfaithful to him, the revelation sends him on a bumpy journey of self-reflection. Embarking on a barely-considered quest to find and question his wife’s lover (Lillard), Matt lets the girls tag along, along with Alex’s tactless, stoner kind-of boyfriend Sid (Krause). The culmination though, is not quite what he had imagined, giving him pause to ponder how his state of emotional disconnect has made him isolated and insular, and indeed, how his ability and willingness (or lack thereof) to find forgiveness in his heart is intertwined with his decision whether to peddle the legacy of his ancestors for a few million.

As always, Payne underplays and undercuts moments of drama with subtle comedy, and vice versa, thereby ensuring that we see the humanity in even the brassiest of characters. “That guy is a prick,” Sid says, observing the cantankerous behavior of Matt’s enraged father-in-law (Forster), and we tend to agree. Yet, mere seconds later, we see the old man’s heartbreak and we smack ourselves on the forehead. Payne is more than adept at creating seemingly impossible, emotionally risqué situations, but he is less interested in their oomph factor than in how characters still muddle through it all somehow, a little worse for the wear perhaps, but also wizened. His team of actors is uniformly good, with Clooney playing beautifully against his persona, a man quite at sea with the lot he is faced with, and Woodley is especially good, bringing warmth and a welcome authenticity to what could have come off as a clichéd snarky adolescent.

While The Descendants may not be vintage Payne, it is still a wry yet (and I have a feeling the filmmaker would bristle at the term) heartfelt look at the complexities and fallibility of human relationships. If nuance is not your thing though, stay well away.

 

Cult: Talk To Her (2002) – How to move on when your loved one is in limbo between life and death? Pedro Almodovar tackles the question – and more – in this sublime entry.

Current: We Bought a Zoo – Superb familial dramedy from director Cameron Crowe, whose penchant for tragi-comedy is something he shares with Payne.

Coming Attraction: Fork in the Road – Payne’s next project, due out later in the year, is shrouded in secrecy. We’re there.

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