Descendants, The (United States, 2011)November 16, 2011
The Descendants may be director Alexander Payne's finest outing to date. The man who began his career behind the camera with withering satires (Citizen Ruth, Election) has moved into dramatic comedies (About Schmidt, Sideways) that simultaneously observe and comment upon the human condition. In The Descendants, Payne has provided a sympathetic, heartfelt look at the myriad forces pulling apart a man standing at life's crossroads. The film works because it eschews the melodrama that could easily creep into a film addressing issues of mortality and family and because, by keeping its sense of humor intact, it never devolves into a means to boost Kleenex sales.
The movie is set in Hawaii, a surprisingly underused location for motion pictures. (Many movies shot there are set elsewhere, like Jurassic Park, for example.) Payne does not dwell overmuch on the beauty of the surroundings (an understandable temptation, one would assume), although The Descendants has its share of pretty images. Although the setting is important - a crucial subplot involves the potential sale of a large parcel of "unspoiled" land - it does not hijack the production and the focus never wavers from the lead character, whose relationships, motivations, and growth as a person form the skeleton and flesh of the story.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a successful lawyer with a popular, outgoing wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and two spirited daughters: 17-year old Alexandre (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller). Matt, who works long hours and is accused of being emotionally distant by Elizabeth, views himself as the "backup parent," but his role changes when his wife is critically injured in a boat race. As she lies in a hospital bed in a coma from which she may never awaken, he must mend fences with the headstrong Alexandre and keep things together for Scottie. When the decision is made to remove Elizabeth from life support, Matt faces the unenviable task of informing her friends and loved one of the decision. His world is knocked off its axis, however, when Alexandre informs Matt that Elizabeth had been cheating on him and was thinking of asking for a divorce. Unable to set aside this revelation, Matt, accompanied by Alexandre and her stoner boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), plays amateur detective and tracks down Elizabeth's lover, an unassuming goofball realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), who is happily married with two kids.
There is insight into the human psyche in the way in which The Descendants addresses Matt's feelings for his dying wife and, more importantly, how it transitions him from being an absentee father into the parent his daughters need. His most difficult interaction is with Elizabeth, who lies in her bed unseeing and unhearing. Matt can vent his anger at her but she cannot respond. He will never know the answers to some of his most pressing questions. Fate, with its sense of irony, provides him with a means of recompense against his romantic adversary, but the movie is canny in the way it positions this because there's more at stake than merely killing a huge commission for Brian.
The two most moving scenes require extraordinary performances from supporting players. In the first, when Scottie must confront the enormity of what is happening - that her mother will not rise from the bed and come home - we see the ability of young Amara Miller, in her first role, come to the fore. Much has rightly been written about the extraordinary performance of Shailene Woodley (a TV actress "crossing over" after years of success as the star of The Secret Life of the American Teenager), whose Alexandre feels like a living, breathing 17-year old, but Miller provides The Descendants' most heartbreaking moment. Equally powerful is the quiet sequence in which Robert Forster, playing Elizabeth's gruff, dislikable dad, stands helplessly by his daughter's bedside and says goodbye. Based on his work in this scene alone, Forster is as deserving of a supporting actor nomination as anyone I have seen this year. The remainder of the cast is strong, with not a weak link to be found. Even Matthew Lillard, not known to be a hefty dramatic actor, is shown in his best light. And Nick Krause, whose Sid initially seems to be around solely for comedic reasons, exhibits complexity.
In About Schmidt, Payne showed himself to be unfazed by the difficulties of directing an icon, and he pulls as much from George Clooney as he did from Jack Nicholson. The actor, often hailed as one of the sexiest men alive, sheds the movie star image in a transformation to a workaholic in his 50s with graying hair and slumping shoulders. He's no ladykiller. He's a father and husband who has failed in both roles and is trying to find his way. This ranks among Clooney's best performances because it's not flashy. Like Nicholson and Paul Giamatti, he's a flawed man trying to find himself.
In tone, approach, and general structure, The Descendants has much in common with Sideways and About Schmidt. All three films feature road trips (the one in The Descendants takes us around Hawaii as Matt tracks down Brian) that mirror the shifting emotional terrain of the main character. The leads are recognizably human with demons to confront and overcome. And the incorporation of humor into narratives that could be unbearably painful if told straight allows viewers to experience sadness without drowning in it.
The Descendants is Payne's fifth feature and he has grown over the years into a reliable filmmaker whose every effort generates anticipation. Interestingly, despite having worked with some of Hollywood's best, he has never developed a "stable" of actors who return movie-after-movie to fill secondary roles. He prefers fresh faces, not only for his leads but in small parts. Nevertheless, in the way he delineates the characters and tells their stories, his fingerprints are all over the material; the different actors enliven the material. The Descendants delivers what too few recent movies achieve: intellectual stimulation coupled with emotional satisfaction. By default, that makes it one of 2011's best offerings.
Descendants, The (United States, 2011)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Nat Fraxon & Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael