In a recent interview, Alexander Payne said that he’s only made minor films and that he’s still hoping to make a really good one someday. Well, considering his output (five films, all of them deserving three-and-a-half to five-star ratings), he’d better deliver one hell of a classic masterpiece in the future. The Descendants, his first movie in seven years, is one of his warmest and most earnest offerings… which is why some fans won over by Sideways (2004) might be left wondering, where’s the edge?
We’re introduced to Matt King (George Clooney), a real estate lawyer based in Honolulu, Hawaii. As the sole trustee of a family trust that owns 25,000 acres of land on Kaua’i, the northernmost of the state’s islands, he and the other beneficiaries are sitting on a fortune. The history of the trust stretches back all the way to King Kamehameha I, but the rule against perpetuities is about the break this bond with the past. As Matt and his cousins argue over to whom they should sell the land, the former is also facing a personal crisis. His wife Elizabeth has suffered an injury that put her in a coma and Matt now has to do something he’s never really been very good at – be a father to his daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
When the doctor tells Matt that Elizabeth is not going to wake up from her coma, he tries to put a brave face on it. Then Alexandra tells him that Elizabeth had been cheating on him…
Celebrating the beauty and history of the state
Hawaii plays a large part in this story. The film opens with Matt explaining to us that mainland Americans may think that Hawaiians live in paradise, but what he’s going through is far from heaven. At the same time, both the story and Payne as director are celebrating the beauty and history of the state (also reflected in the soundtrack), emphasizing the need for roots and a past that goes beyond America’s involvement. That’s the big picture. But your personal family is also part of those roots and that’s the more intimate drama of the film, cleverly tied to the future of that Kaua’i land.
In a way, you could see this effort as part of a Payne trilogy, where Sideways portrays younger, bawdier times and About Schmidt (2002) aims for the twilight years and a sense of futility. The Descendants is right there in the middle, following a man who’s settled down but knows there is still time to fix his mistakes. What they all have in common is the humanity – Payne is fascinated with the average man and his (considerable) flaws, which he chronicles with a sense of humor, without mocking them. Clooney is up to the challenge of playing this husband and father who’s never had to fight for his family or establish some kind of authority, and he’s beautifully matched by Woodley as the daughter who nurses resentments like only a teenager can.
The actors and the amusing and touching ways that characters interact with each other ring true and make the film compelling at those times when the story and its hunt for the man Elizabeth was falling in love with seems a tad too simple.
In a way, the film has a very thankful opening; as we’re getting to know Matt King’s family, he too seems to share our experience. We understand that prior to the drama of this film, Matt has simply been going through the motions, as a family man and a trustee. Out of a tragedy comes a chance to turn things around. Sideways may have Merlot-fueled misadventures, but The Descendants is the mature work of a filmmaker who since has gone through a divorce and surgery. That should teach one lessons about life.
The Descendants 2011-U.S. 115 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Novel: Kaui Hart Hemmings. Cast: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Hugh), Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard.
Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actor (Clooney).
Last word: “I think the film is more leisurely paced. Not because I wanted to make a slower film, but I think the rhythm one feels out there found its way into the film, and I’m happy about that. I remember when I was showing the film to some filmmaker and he said, ‘Why, if the wife is dying and there’s such an urgency to find her lover, are they stopping to go to the beach, or see this land on Kauai? I don’t believe that.’ Having lived there, I completely believe that. Plus the fact that when you’re amid a family crisis, you treasure having times out of war.” (Payne, A.V. Club)