REVIEW: The Descendants

14 03 2012

Mixing comedy and drama is a perilous task, but Alexander Payne makes it look like he could do it in his sleep in his remarkable new film “The Descendants.”  An absolute triumph of writing and directing, he finds the humor in the tragic situations and gravity in the funniest moments.  His pathos is unconventional and unexpected, leaving his words and messages lingering in your head for days.

Just like some of Payne’s previous films like “Election” and “About Schmidt,” he chooses to tell the story through the eyes of a prickly protagonist.  In “The Descendants,” it’s Matt King (George Clooney), the owner of a massive Hawaiian land inheritance.  After his unfaithful wife lapses into a coma after a freak boating accident, Matt must come to terms that he has been absent as the head of his family.  His role as the “understudy” comes to bite him in the butt as he is forced to assume both parenting roles actively on short notice.

Payne’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) begins its narrations through voice-overs from Matt that illuminate his thoughts.  We get a chance to fully grasp his frustrations, his anxieties, and his fears before we really get down in the mud with him during these trying times.  The narration slowly disappears as the movie progresses, but that hardly means we lose our connection to Matt.  Instead, Payne wisely trusts leading man George Clooney to take over control of communicating his character to the audience.

And Clooney, ever suave and debonair, bares more of his soul than ever in “The Descendants.”  We feel the movie through him, and every small triumph or massive pain lands firmly in the gut.  I didn’t think it was possible for him to outdo himself after such incredible turns in “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air,” but his third Academy Award-nominated performance in five years is his best ever.  His willingness to be vulnerable, to wear his pain and heartbreak raw on his sleeves, straps us in tightly to go on an emotional journey with Matt and the King family.  While the payoff may not be as predictably cathartic as a mainstream comedy or drama, Clooney’s execution of Payne’s vision is every bit as rewarding as it is real.

Basically all the same praises could be repeated for Shailene Woodley, the 20-year-old actress who lights up the screen as Matt’s troubled daughter Alexandra King.  In just her first major film role – her only other major screen credit being an ABC Family series, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” – she makes the battle scars of her struggles with drugs, alcohol, and sex so gapingly evident with only a line of exposition to let us know that they exist.  She can spout some serious sass, but Woodley’s best scene comes when she’s informed of her mother’s imminent death.  Rather than let her anger pour out in front of her father, Alex retreats into the depths of a pool, literally suppressing everything below the surface.  I look forward to great things to come from this bright young talent.  (And also from Amara Miller, who plays Matt’s 10-year-old daughter with the spunk necessary to convey his inability to keep her from being corrupted by Alex.)

However, “The Descendants” is more than just Matt and his daughters’ story.  Payne fills the screen with dynamically developed characters, even sneaking up on us and filling stock characters with poignancy.  Sid (Nick Krause), the dim-witted boyfriend archetype, delivers one of the film’s most moving moments in a conversation with Matt that at first strikes us as banal and filler dialogue.  But Payne, knowing that’s exactly what we take it for, uses the opportunity to surprise us and magnify the impact of the scene.

The richness of the film lies in the nuances.  For example, the editing, often lingering just a second too long on an actor’s face, really is superb in allowing us to experience the suffering of the characters.  The expert juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, reminding us that humor is just as much a tool for coping as it is for escaping, holds so many humanistic insights.  The performances of Matthew Lillard and  Judy Greer as the Speers, a couple inextricably linked with the fate of the Kings, and Robert Forster as Scott Thorson, Matt’s tough-as-nails father-in-law, are so memorable for their emotional honesty that it’s hard to believe they only appear in two scenes each.

And, of course, it takes place in beautiful Hawaii, an idyllic setting for such less-than-ideal events.  While there will inevitably be many wishes sent up for a surprise trip to Kauai, the real takeaway from “The Descendants” is what a great cast can do with a profound script from a perceptive director.  It may not be the most cozy and comfortable movie to sit through, but it’s one worth watching again and again to allow Payne’s gift to keep revealing itself in profound new ways.  A-

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4 responses

15 03 2012
hatedandslated

Great review. Encapsulated it beautifully.

16 03 2012
Andrew

Excellently written review, Marshall.

For my part, Woodley has one thing over Clooney– Clooney’s not standing next to someone more established and lauded than he is. Woodley, on the other hand, has to contend constantly with being paired with one of the greatest actors of his generation, and she manages to match him effortlessly. They make a fantastic duo on-screen.

This was an easy top 15 pick for me; I’m a sucker for Payne, who I think has yet to make a bad movie, and just as much a mark for Clooney. But despite the elite standing of its cast– which pushes them out of social relateability for many– I think this is a movie about common questions of what comprises a family. Is it the cousins, who smile at Matt from moment to moment before pulling out their knives in the last scene? (“Cousins” meaning “Beau Bridges”, who basically acts as representative for most of them.) Or is it the two estranged daughters you’re distant to who nevertheless rally to and around you for support when things get tough?

16 03 2012
Marshall

Interesting point about family; I think the beauty of movies like “The Descendants” is that they can mean an endless number of things to an endless amount of people.

16 03 2012
Andrew

I agree wholeheartedly. There are a lot of takeaways here, but that was the one that stuck out most to me.

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