Film Reviews

The Descendants Alexander Payne

Rating - 9/10

The Descendants starts with a wife in a coma and doesn't artificially perk up from there. Beautiful cinematography of stunning Hawaiian locations by Phedon Papamichael (who also lensed director Alexander Payne's Sideways) and a gentle Hawaiian soundtrack surveying the archipelago's rich musical history massage the impact of a story that could descend into miserablism if mishandled. Payne handles it very well in a manner that, beneath handsome exterior and movie star lead, is resolutely anti-Hollywood in execution. The picture methodically avoids the emotional cartwheels and outsized demonstration the premise might facilitate. It is, rather, an observation of flawed characters handling dire circumstances as best they could be expected to, a quiet family tragedy of characters holding it together and coping functionally.

The husband is George Clooney giving his best performance to date. The movie is tethered to his perspective, and opens with his narration. The narration threatens to be excessive at the beginning, but it turns out to be a well-deployed devise as it vanishes by the halfway point. By the time we are learning new information at the same time he does, he stops telling us. Clooney does remarkably subtle work conveying depths of feeling and pain beneath the controlled exterior of a man of limited expression. Shailene Woodley matches him as the older and more rebellious of his two daughters. Their superficial tension and practical affection feel real and earned.

The central family could seem like a rote assembly of cliches, what with the distant workaholic father who doesn't know his kids as well as he could, the wild teenage daughter, and the precocious youngster. Payne regards them all with his sure, novelistic respect for character, allowing them all distinct personalities containing an ability to belie the stereotypes they might more lazily embody. There is no school assembly, concert recital, or pageant for Clooney to show up at the last minute to.

The only odd note in a stellar cast is Nick Krause as an insufferable friend Woodley insists on allowing to tag along. His presence often feels inappropriate, but it is intended to in a story that is rigorously faithful to the reality that things can never be ideal. The triumph of the family is in managing to deal, and doing so with some grace and composure. Even Krause is given a scene to demonstrate more than his douche presence suggests and a reason for his presence, while still letting him remain an insensitive prick most of the time.

Payne's humor is present, but notably muted to a scale appropriate for the non-comedic story. Interestingly, he allows fine comic actors to shine in dramatic supporting roles. The couple closest to Clooney is deftly portrayed by Mary Birdsong and Rob Heubel from television's Reno 911 and Human Giant, respectively. Matthew Lillard's innately goofy mug is used initially as a visual punchline, but when he shares a fraught, emotionally laden confrontation with Clooney, he honors the weight of it. Most impressive is the brilliant comic actress Judy Greer in an entirely non-comic role wherein she nails one of the movie's most devastating scenes. Her distraught outburst could easily tip into the hysteria the rest of the movie avoids, but she finds the right note, a difficult one to hit.

Also worth noting is Robert Forster as Clooney's gruff, bitter father-in-law. He is allowed a great deal more concealed tenderness than hard-ass father-in-laws usually are while still getting to punch a punk kid in the face. Beau Bridges has a few nice scenes as well, playing the most prominent member of Clooney's extended family. In a B plot poignantly reflecting the themes of loss present in the family story, Clooney is on the verge of making the decision of whether and whom to sell his family's inheritance, several of the last acres of virgin Hawaii, to. As closely as it regards Clooney and his direct family, The Descendants is not a chamber film. Why make one of those in Hawaii? There are a number of story strands weaving out from the central trauma lending layers of resonance.

After a few quiet years (at least theatrically), Alexander Payne returns to re-assert himself among the best filmmakers working. His strength with character is almost peerless. As noted, the humor that distinguished all of his previous pictures is very muted here. What may seem most conspicuously near-absent here is the acerbic satire of his earlier movies. There may be a touch here in there, in the introductory montage of bathos in paradise, on Lillard's true-to-life (i.e. ridiculous) realtor placard, in the gauche uniformity of Clooney's flower-shirt and tube sock donning lazy cousins, but there is a realism here that is closer to the relationships in Sideways than to the bold caricatures of Election.

It is worth remembering that even in a satirical masterpiece like Election the characters were all treated sympathetically with real motivation and need to drive them to their hilarious conflict and action. While About Schmidt was partially an odyssey of middle-American inelegance, it was also a tragedy of quiet desperation. Alexander Payne is a storyteller of different notes, both a satirist and a novelist of the screen, one of the most humane of all directors. The Descendants is not a satire, but it is a tremendously moving story of handling the unfortunate with composure, bravery, and a few tears.