THE DESCENDANTS Review:
- I think Alexander Payne is one of those directors who's easy to like but hard to love. His movies are often ambitious blends of comedy and tragedy, humor and sadness. The man has a knack for telling small-scale stories that nonetheless address the Big themes. At the same time, his films often have the glossed-over feel of a best-selling airport novel. There's not quite the same style or uniqueness that you'd get from the likes of the Coen Bros. or Wes Anderson - creatives who's movies are similar thematically, but who are much quirkier - perhaps, you might say, more visionary. So part of me wasn't quite sure what to make of The Descendants - would this be the movie equivalent of a breezy beach read with literary pretensions? Was this simply yet another attempt by star George Clooney to get an Oscar by playing an average schlub? And what's more, would this - an easy Oscar-bait sort of movie - end up stealing critical thunder from more innovative and unique fare. At the end of the day though, I was mostly pretty won over by this one. It's a well-acted, well-told tale that benefits from Payne's naturalistic style. George Clooney delivers one of his best performances to date, coming at a time when he only just recently impressed in The Ides of March (which he also directed). I think The Descendents is more than just Oscar-bait, but an emotional, funny film with something to say.
So what is the movie about? It's about a well-to-do guy, Matt King (Clooney) living in Hawaii, whose family has inherited a large swath of unspoiled beachfront land. Matt is a lawyer, and so he's been able to make a nice living for himself without depending on the money that's to be made from the sale of the family land to a developer, with plans to turn it into a resort. The same can't be said for the rest of King's large extended family, many of whom are down-on-their-luck and eagerly awaiting the profits from the sale of the land. Matt can afford to be idealistic and sentimental about the land - some of the others can't. While Matt is dealing with the family infighting, a much worse problem befalls him. His wife and mother to his two daughters gets into a boating accident, and falls into a coma, with little chance of recovery. Work and travel often kept Matt away from his wife and kids, so he naturally feels a lot of guilt about the whole thing, even as he struggles to be a good dad to his daughters - the younger Scottie and the teenaged Alex, in the absence of their mom. But all of Matt's complicated feelings about his wife and family are made exponentially more complicated when he learns that his comatose wife had been engaged in a long affair with another man, and had planned to leave him before the accident. Driven towards anger, self-doubt, and confusion by these revelations, Matt takes his daughters (and Alex's dimwitted boyfriend, Sid) on an unusual family trip - a quest to find his wife's secret lover so as to let him know about her condition, to gain some closure, and, just possibly, to sock him in the jaw.
The journey taken by Matt and his family is captivating on a number of levels. Most immediately it is, if nothing else, a pretty breathtaking tour of Hawaii. Payne takes care to depict Hawaii as not entirely glamorous - we see the congested, overdeveloped suburbs, the chintzy tourist traps, and the comically bad fashion sense of the locals (even the usually suave Clooney is dressed down in khaki shorts, sandalls, and ill-fitting polo shirts). But, we also see gorgeous beaches, stunning island vistas, and bright blue oceans. Payne directs it all with a keen eye for capturing the richness of the landscapes, and adds all sorts of interesting local color. There's a very, very strong sense of place in this film, and it adds a lot to the story. Suffice it to say, you'll be hard-pressed not to utter "I want to go to there" at some point while watching the film.
On another level, Matt's journey is a great little story about family, and about how values are passed on from one generation to another. I was thinking about the title of the film for a while after viewing, and wondering what, exactly, it meant. What, for that matter, was this movie getting at - what did it all mean? The more I thought about it, the more I gained an appreciation for the story being told here. Because what I realized was that this is a story about setting an example for the next generation. We meet Matt King at a pivotal moment. Up until now, he and his wife have not exactly set a great example for their kids. When we first meet Alex, she's drunk at boarding school, depressed, and bitter at her mother and father. Scottie is still young, but already, she's a bit of a brat - getting into trouble at school and - quite hilariously - cursing up a storm. You can see the sort of chain of negative influece at play here. With a mostly absent father and a mother who was a liar and a cheater, is it any wonder that these kids are headed down the wrong path? That's where the disparate stories seem to tie together - Matt's decision about what to do with his family's land takes on a larger meaning - it's about what sort of future he's creating for his kids, what sort of example he's giving to them. Is his the generation that ruins paradise, that creates broken homes? Or can he transcend that, and get a second chance at doing right by his home and his family? Like I said, the story is at once small-scale yet thematically ambitious.
Payne gets a lot of mileage out of a great cast. Not only does the movie feature a standout performance from Clooney, but it's also got a potentially career-making turn from ABC Family star Shailene Woodley as older daughter Alex. Woodley does a fantastic job portraying a girl in her rebellious, cynical, smart-assed teenage phase who very quickly is forced to do some growing up and gain some maturity and perspective. But Payne also makes a good call in casting some very funny actors, known primarily for their comedy work, in key roles. Rob Huebel is hilarious as Matt's whipped brother-in-law, for example. And Judy Greer - always so great on various sitcoms - is a scene-stealer as the guilt-stricken woman married to the guy who had the affair with Matt's wife. Another standout is Nick Krause as Sid, Alex's boyfriend who tags along with her and her family. Probably the movie's most cartoonish character, Sid, oddly, works because Krause's comic timing is so good. Seeing Krause's braindead teen go mano e mano with Clooney's middle-aged Matt is a lot of fun, and their interactions produce some of the movie's best scenes. Beau Bridges is also very funny as Cousin Hugh - channelling the Bridges family's innate Dudeness, Bridges is great as the stoned-out surfer who is desperate to cash-in on the impending land-sale.
At times, you can't help but wonder: "why these characters?" What is Payne's fascination with making melodrama out of the problems of the upper-middle-class? And I think that, at times, it makes his characters, and his movies, hard to love. Without the protective, ironic distance of the Coens or Wes Anderson, you sometimes think that, sure, these people have problems, but are they really all that important? Where The Descendents at times struggles is when it's trying to convince us of one of its central themes - that even in paradise, there can be trouble. Yes, Hawaii has suburban sprawl, but still ... it's Hawaii,and it's pretty amazing. Yes, Matt King's got issues, but he's still wealthy, lives in Hawaii, and he's George Clooney. And while Clooney does a fine job in the role, he still at times has that movie-star look in his eye that indicates that sure, he's playing an ordinary Joe in this movie, but at any time his character might reveal a hidden second career as an international super-spy or covert assassin. It's a tightrope that this movie walks on.
It is a tightrope, but I think THE DESCENDANTS mostly manages to pull it off. Payne ultimately does manage to find the genuine pathos, humor, and poignancy in the story of these characters, and crafts a film - filled with excellent performances - that manages to stick with you and make you think. Does he 100% nail it with an exclamation point at the end? Not sure I'd go that far. But I do feel confident in calling this a very, very good film that will likely end up as a highlight of the 2011 holiday moviegoing season. Even if you're feeling skeptical, I'd highly recommend giving this one a shot.
My Grade: A-