Alexander Payne films are not my cup of tea. About Schmidt had its moments (awkward though they might have been) and I just couldn’t believe how over-hyped and mismarketed Sideways was. That said, I was not expecting to enjoy Payne’s latest film The Descendants. Payne directs this adaptaion of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel of the same name which tells the story of yet another broken family who are equally down on their luck, but teach us that when unexpected tragedies arise it’s OK to no have all the answers. It was surprisingly enjoyable without becoming preachy or overly independent feeling and Clooney can certainly expect to receive a well deserved nod this Oscar season.
Matt King is a Hawaiian land baron whose wife has been in a boating accident and now lies in a coma. As he deals with the impending death of his wife, he tries to re-connect with his two young daughters. Having thrown himself into his law firm and the multi-billion dollar real estate sale of the remaining undeveloped land in Hawaii, he’s become distant from his children for the better part of a decade. Struggling with being a single dad and coping with the decision to take his wife off life support Matt starts second guessing the family’s decision to sell the land that his bloodline has owned for generations going all the way back to Queen Kamehameha. Matters are complicated when Matt learns his wife was having an affair before her accident and as the plot thickens he finds that emotional blow is still the least of the problems he’s facing.
To King, something as big as the largest single real estate/developmental deal in Hawaii’s history is insignificant to the loss of a spouse and the possibility of alienating your children. Dramedies are known to poke fun of tragic events in people’s lives (well the character’s lives really) in attempts to lighten the mood. Sure you laugh to keep from crying but sometimes it feels forced. So forced in fact that it ruins the dramatic intensity of the scene/story and a handful of scenes start to have a ABC Family feel to them. Shifting gears Payne then takes the story the other way to his tendency to present the audience with his awkward stories/sequences that, at times, can be so uncomfortable that you’ll be glad you’re on this side of the silver screen as the events unfold. Kathy Bates anyone?
Bursts of audacity and spontaneous laughter pepper the film to continually lighten the mood and flesh out The Descendants more on the comedy side of this “dramedy” as if it were afraid it would lose the audience if things were too heavy. King learns to be a father and his kids learn what its like to finally have one. Balancing out the sometimes funny way Clooney’s deals with grief are his children Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley) and her idiot quasi boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). The kids start to be annoying and their cursing gets old pretty quickly as it trades the children’s genuine attempts to push the limits for forced shock value.
What becomes the heart of the story is Clooney’s character struggling with being powerless in dealing with his family, be it his wife, his kids or his cousins for which he’s negotiating the sale of the family trust in the big development deal. Worse than being powerless though is being so in the dark about the feelings and lifestyles of the people around you that King has so much catch up to do before he can start putting the broken pieces together. King is so lost at times that he ends up consulting Kim’s idiot boyfriend without realizing how ludicrous it it. There is a palatable realness to the film and it 110% goes to Clooney. He transforms King into a very vulnerable character where, as Clooney is a high profile A List actor, you see the character and not just him in the role. In short this is probably one of Clooney’s best roles to date.
The Descendants features authentic emotional struggles and characters that don’t have all the answers or programmed Hollywood responses. That aids in making a good number of the sequence feel genuine and not scripted. Despite some uneven pacing in the beginning The Decendants finds its feet and becomes a solid little film that is powered by Clooney and Woodley (who acts both impressively and confidently opposite the seasoned Clooney) to unexpectedly endearing results. Look past foul mouthed children and the forced comedy which can take you out of more than one scene and this is almost a how-to exercise in grief counseling. It’s the kind of movie that shows sides of life you don’t want to deal with but may eventually have to one day. Moreover it succeeds in plucking a great many heart strings and you won’t be mad that it makes you cry. There’s a sensational scene in a boat near the end but what really got me was a sweet and underplayed scene with the blanket…that’s all I’m gonna say.
The Descandants is a tender, surreal, often uproarious film about coping with life’s unexpected tragedies and lunacies. As stated in the into to this review Payne is not my go to for any manner of storyteller. He seems to have found his comfort zone making films that tell real (and surreal) stories but are free of the candy coating that we’ve come to expect when dealing with tough emotional subject matter. Alexander Payne grafts a bitter-sweet feel to this adaptation and the film, although a little uneven at the start, finds its groove and presents itself as his most appealing and emotionally satisfying film to date.