Friday, February 24, 2012

The Descendants

Alexander Payne is not the sort of writer/director who makes iconic roles for his lead actors; he's the guy who gave Jack Nicholson a comb-over in About Schmidt.  He doesn't necessarily need star power to make a quality film, either --- he made an Oscar-winning film with the villain from Big Fat Liar and the dumb guy from Wings.  His movies are consistently surprising in subtle ways, usually thanks to good use of humor in otherwise sad stories. The Descendants is designed to follow suit; there are certainly some funny moments, but this is a film that wants the audience to feel (sad) things.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a lucky, lucky man.  He is independently wealthy, runs a successful law practice, was born and raised in Hawaii, and has a fun-loving wife and a pair of daughters.  Unfortunately, keeping himself busy with lawyering has led to a strained marriage and a self-described role of the "back-up parent" in his family, but nobody's perfect.
He owns this land.  Poor Matt!
The Descendants begins with Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma, as a result of a boating accident.  Now, you may be wondering when the humor is going to kick in, but there are some laughs in this film, I promise.  Matt learns from the doctors that his wife is only getting worse, and she is now a vegetable; in accordance with her living will, Elizabeth is going to be removed from life support and is going to die.  Ha ha!  Get it?  Comedy!  Matt now shoulders the burden of breaking the news to his rebellious teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), his socially inept younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), as well as their friends and family.  He starts with Alex, because she's older and theoretically more mature, but she has a surprise for Matt: Alex reveals that her mom was having an affair, just before the accident.  Matt's initial reaction is to awkwardly jog and look old.
But he can't run forever (or even briefly, at least not well); he has to be a rock for his kids.  No matter how furious Matt is, he will never hear Elizabeth defending or explaining herself to him; he will forever be left with unanswered questions.  And now he has to be around friends and family that are going to ramble on and on about how great she was, while trying to find the right way to break the bad news to little Scottie.  Oh, and Matt also has the burden of being the key player in a huge real estate deal that will forever change the face of Hawaii, and the rest of the players are his extended family.  Granted, these are definitely all first world problems, but these are trying times for Matt King.

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding George Clooney's performance in The Descendants, and it is well-deserved.  Clooney trades in his omnipresent charm and cool for some very believable awkwardness and grief.
Pictured above: grief
What makes Clooney so impressive in this role is that it is almost entirely made of small choices.  A story with a wife having the plug pulled should, by all rights, be a saccharine-sweet hankie-fest, but Clooney handled his character's grief in a very realistic fashion, and was not afraid to be funny, even amidst all the stress and sadness.  I've seen every movie Clooney has been in over the past decade (except, oddly, Up in the Air), and this is easily the best performance of his I have seen.  To be perfectly honest, I expected him to be good here, but I was pleasantly surprised by his two daughters.  Amara Miller was surprisingly funny and owned the most heartbreaking moment in the film.  Shailene Woodley was even better as the most believable teenager I think I have ever seen on the screen.  I thought the alternately strained and supportive relationship she had with Clooney was believable and sweet.
Yeah, I've been on the receiving end of that glare before
I was also happy with the rest of the supporting cast.  Nick Krause was initially irritating comedic relief, but his role turned out to be complex and Krause handled it well.  Robert Forster was fun as Elizabeth's grieving --- but still an asshole --- father and Beau Bridges was likable as Matt's business-minded --- and kind of an asshole --- cousin.  Established comedic actors Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong turned in some quality supporting dramatic roles.  Even actors that normally bug the crap out of me, like Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard were surprisingly effective.

Alexander Payne made a lot of interesting choices when making The Descendants.  Despite setting the film in Hawaii, there isn't as much time devoted to showing off the beautiful location as you might expect.  I was also surprised that a two-time Sexiest Man Alive winner, Clooney, is never really shown as a dapper or typically sexy man in this film.
Sexiest Man Wearing a T-Shirt on the Beach Winner
There are a lot of little things like that in The Descendants.  You might expect gorgeous cinematography, and there are some pretty cool shots, but Payne concentrated on capturing layered emotions.  The performances all stand out in this movie, once again proving Payne's talent with ensemble casts.  The Descendants might not be a film that comes right out and grabs you, but its subtle quality definitely grew on me.  This is some of the most satisfying emotional filmmaking in recent years, and it doesn't feel overly manipulative or calculated.

My only problem with this film is the whole real estate subplot.  It does tie into the larger and far more enveloping main story, but it just never seemed very important to me.  As much as the film strives to make George Clooney into an average, over-his-head type of guy, the land deal just served to remind the audience that this is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars and chose to be a workaholic absentee father to his children, and probably a sub-par husband to his wife.  The ultimate resolution of that subplot does serve as a sort of gauge for determining his character's development and how his values have changed, but I wish that subplot had been scrapped in favor of more quiet moments of family unity.
Simple, but effective.  But who leaves their feet uncovered?

The Descendants is still a very, very good movie that rings true on many levels.  Clooney gives a great performance, the supporting cast was lovely, and Alexander Payne once again made a quiet and touching film that packs a few surprises.


  1. Finally someone who feels the same way i do about this movie! I reallu enjoyed it and liked the subtley and the great, often understated acting here. Shailene woodley blew me away. Even though there wasn't anything big or flashy ablut this movie, it had so much heart and seemed to ring so true. Most others i have tslked to who have seen it weren't really big fans, though, and i have had a hard time understanding why

    1. Well, it's not an immediate film, I think. When I finished watching it, my first reaction was that it was good, but overrated. The more I thought about it, though, the more I recalled the little things that make the movie work so well. I still can't believe that I wound up enjoying Sid.

    2. I was shocked by that too. For most of the movie i was just like "what is that kid still DOING here?" But by the end, somehow, he grew on me.

  2. This movie blows. I have not seen it, nor ever will. It sucks donkey dick. THE END. Take that!

    1. Excellent point. I'm just confused how you knew about the donkey bit if you haven't seen the movie, though.