(USA; 115 min.)
directed by: Alexander Payne
starring: George Clooney; Shailene Woodley; Amara Miller; Nick Krause; Beau Bridges
"THE DESCENDANTS is, I suppose, a movie about trust and responsibility,
although I'm not getting very far trying to boil it down to parallel
situations and easy lessons. That's okay, though; this lets
director Alexander Payne put a naturally smooth leading man like George
Clooney into a situation that's all corners - something he handles
better than expected.
"Clooney plays Matt King, whose last name is apt in that he's a direct descendant of a Hawaiian princess (although the Polynesian blood has apparently been diluted during the last century and a half). As a lawyer and head of the family, he's in charge of divesting one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land on the archipelago, and the whole state is anxiously awaiting his decision about whether to take more money from a Chicago-based developer or go with a somewhat smaller offer from a local businessman. He, however, has issues much more close to home to worry about: His wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident, and the doctors inform him that she's not going to wake up. A self-described "back-up parent" to two daughters, he now finds himself having to deal with ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and sixteen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) acting out on top of informing family and friends of Elizabeth's condition. Oh, and to make matters worse, Alex tells him that Elizabeth was cheating on him.
"This movie is based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and I suspect that the Kings' spendthrift cousins and the question of what to do with the land was much more prominent in the original book. Here, the disposition of the ancestral land mainly serves as a reason for strangers to be nosy and remind the audience that Matt's got a lot on his plate, at least for the bulk of the running time. It does eventually get tied in with the story of Matt trying to sort out his reactions to his wife's infidelity, but that connection feels a little contrived (it's more than a bit of a small-world coincidence). In the end, both are perhaps about Matt trying to figure out what he owes to people he can't converse with and on the one hand and how to guide his family on the other, but establishing these themes in both stories does cut into the time that could be spent really exploring them in either.
"Fortunately, Payne spends the bulk of his his time on Matt and his more immediate family and does some interesting things there. One choice he makes that may not be particularly unusual but is certainly one I don't recall seeing before is how he presents Elizabeth in the hospital; where most coma patients on film seem comfortable and serene, she looks stiff and twisted, perhaps to make a starker contrast to the beautiful Hawaiian scenery outside. He avoids any sort of flashback that would allow the audience to get to know Elizabeth or see what sort of straits her and Matt's marriage was in; it also means that when people tell Alexandra that she's a lot like her mother, we've got no context for whether it's a good or bad thing.
"And, of course, he sticks George Clooney in just about every scene, which almost never hurts. Clooney has a natural charisma and self-assurance to him, although he mostly brings that out when doing narration - the narration, after all, is the stuff that his character knows - and as an occasionally snarky false face when dealing with other people. Much of the rest of the time, he's showing and uncertainty, even running funny to show that there are cracks in his veneer. He's working with a couple of impressive young actresses in many of his scenes, too. Shailene Woodley giving a mirror of Clooney's performance, in that while Matt is in much more turmoil than he lets on, Alex has things much more together than anyone is ready to believe. We see a lot of Matt in Alex, actually, and looking at the rest probably gives us some idea about Elizabeth. Amara Miller is often playing something of a generic weird kid or brat, but she's a believable one and good when she has to be.
"The rest of the cast are given less intricate characters to play as well, which can lead to some too-broad performances. Nick Krause isn't entirely to blame for a little of Alex's friend Sid going a long way, but he sure does manage to slide right into a character designed to get on Matt's nerves. Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel are playing off-beat friends of the family, and it's not a great loss when those quirky comedy characters disappear as the movie gets more serious. On the other hand, Robert Forster is great as Elizabeth's father, a tightly clenched fist of a man who is likely a good man underneath his anger but is not in the best place to show it. Toward the end, there are a couple of really nice surprises in Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer, who make Matt's confrontation with his wife's lover much more interesting than one might expect based upon their previous work.
"It's a pretty film, of course; the Hawaiian settings basically mean that cinematographer Phedon Papamichael just has to set up his camera and point in any direction to capture a nice landscape; the matching music does a nice job of keeping things to the proper scale. Everything about the film does that, really; it's enjoyable in large part for not trying to be more or less than it is.
"Seen 7 November 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (CineCaché)"
says: "If anything distinguishes Alexander Payne from other
filmmakers of his generation, it’s in how thoroughly he develops his
characters. Even when working with a densely packed narrative like his
abortion satire CITIZEN RUTH, the characters stick with you longer than
the (admittedly great) story does; it’s partially why he’s extracted
career-best performances from Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and
Virginia Madsen and it’s arguably what made a whisper-thin narrative
like SIDEWAYS work.
"Payne’s first feature since SIDEWAYS centers on another intriguing character in Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian land baron. His extended family owns the last large parcel of undeveloped acreage on one of the state’s islands. The family wants to sell this land, and since Matt’s the trustee, he ultimately makes the final decision as to whom the buyer is. Initially, he’s not terribly concerned about the land’s fate, and the issue does seem a little flippant in light of the fact that his wife, Elizabeth lies a coma following a severe waterskiing accident.
"The thing about Matt is he’s decidedly modest for a land baron, preferring to make his living as a lawyer rather than living off his ancestral wealth. Whether dealing with his two daughters or reeling from an unpleasant secret about his wife, he is also amiably flawed in that he doesn’t always have the right answers but he rarely comes off as a buffoon. Credit Payne’s incisive but nuanced screenplay (cowritten with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) but don’t underrate Clooney–although the man still emanates a fair amount of his patented movie-star charm, he’s rarely seemed this relatable or vulnerable (his fairly good work in UP IN THE AIR almost seems like a trial run in comparsion).
"Actually, THE DESCENDANTS greatly benefits from a sustained, understated tone that is rare for most films dealing with death, infidelity and a vanishing way of life. Gently buoyed by a pleasantly drowsy Hawaiian guitar-soaked score, Payne’s even-keeled approach is perfectly in tune with the culture it documents. While it’s hard not marvelling at Hawaii’s natural beauty, one gets an astute sense of what it’s really like to live there. A major accomplishment for Payne, THE DESCENDANTS is miles away from the wicked satire of his earlier films, but it feels just as personal. 5 cats"