“I’ve never been there but the brochure looks nice” – Sheryl Crow
“Paradise can go f*** itself.” – Matt King (George Clooney)
That’s a rather sharp retort if I’ve ever heard one, and it sets the tone for Alexander Payne’s long-awaited new film The Descendants, eagerly anticipated since he won an Oscar for the much-ballyhooed Sideways in 2004. Having never understood the appeal of Sideways, I looked forward to The Descendants based on what I consider his previous and far superior works: Citizen Ruth, an appropriately ruthless comic diatribe on the abortion debate; About Schmidt, a frank look at mortality that coerced a career-best performance from Jack Nicholson; and Election, the astute political microcosm and quite possibly the blackest American comedy of the 90s, with a pitch-perfect performance from Matthew Broderick and a career-defining turn by Reese Witherspoon (who has yet to venture into such pitch-black material since trading up to become America’s sweetheart).
Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel of the same name, Payne opens his new film with a shot of a happy, smiling blonde woman on a motorboat in Hawaii. These may turn out to be the last moments of her life. Matt’s wife Elizabeth has been thrown from that motorboat and is in a permanent coma, with a living will that directs her husband to pull the plug on her. We find out that their teenage daughter Alexandra (wonderful Shailene Woodley) had a fight with her mother by calling her out on her affair with a local real estate kingpin (Matthew Lillard), which Matt knew nothing about. The younger daughter Scottie is a willful little brat, given to marking her exits from every room by flipping the bird. Matt is the trustee of a family trust governing the last 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian land. The trust runs out in seven years, so when they receive an offer from a developer to turn the land into a luxury golf course and resort, everyone is pressuring him to finalize the sale, take the money and run. It is by sheer dumb luck that the family has owned this property for centuries and the law against perpetuities is forcing them to liquidate or lose their rights to the land. Given these circumstances, it’s no wonder that Matt is not keen on the idea of paradise.
It would be inappropriate to describe the film as a comedy, since so many dramatic elements dominate the narrative. Similarly, it would be misleading to consider this as pure drama, since the humour is pointed and sometimes viciously funny. It is also not quite right to consider this a family film, since one would not expect you to take your whole clan to take in a film about another family dealing with impending loss and grief (you will want to take them to see The Muppets instead). The tone is pitched somewhere between all three of these, as Payne’s screenplay and direction uphold a delicate balance.
It’s fascinating watching George Clooney maintain his own balancing act as well. Now more than a decade removed from ER, it’s hard to believe that he was at one time Roseanne’s boss and Batman. One of the few true movie stars, Clooney has successfully developed a long career of challenging roles in intelligent, worthy projects, earning six career Oscar nominations and one win for such films as Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Up in the Air and Michael Clayton. He continues his long winning streak with a lived-in performance of a wearied man whose incredible life pressures threaten to pull him under the sands of paradise and bury him alive. He does come up for air in some rather sitcom-esque moments that almost derail the film’s momentum, but his best scenes are with Woodley as they spar and work through their grief in preparation for the inevitable.
Without giving too much away, Matt does commit a major act that seems out of character and driven by emotion, one that seems out of character and vocation for him, but in the context of seeing a man falling apart slowly and sewing the remnants of his soul back together, it makes sense. (Those who do not will disagree and think he’s just lost his mind.) A lot of my professional network will understand what I mean when they see it, and I personally thought it was not keeping in step with the tone of the character, thus spoiling the momentum for me. I will leave it at that.
Also providing ample support are Robert Forster as Matt’s father-in-law, a perpetually angry sort whose lifelong buildup of bile makes him little more than a caricature. He’s the sort who lives to complain about everything, tell you about his sacrifices, and make you feel bad that your life is free of conflict if you dare to admit it to him. However, since Forster is a supreme character actor, had he not infused his character with some humanity, you would have thrown your popcorn at the screen and fled from the emotional abuse he inflicts. Young Amara Miller plays Scottie well, delivering a nuanced performance of an angry child who does not have the capacity or understanding to deal with grief, but who slowly builds it over the course of the film. Nick Krause, as Alexandra’s surfer dude friend Sid, at first appears to be a human punching bag and another walking caricature, but he does reveal why his character is along for the ride, and his presence makes sense (even if it is a bit odd that I see him as the spiritual twin of Encino Man). But the film’s true revelation is the ingénue Woodley as Alexandra, who is forced to grow up quickly in a time of extreme stress. One of the year’s acting finds, along with Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, she should find herself on the red carpet at the Kodak alongside Clooney come February.
The film ends on a quiet note. We see the family together as a unit, having weathered an emotional firestorm, with the knowledge that there is more trouble ahead for them. The Descendants does not conclude tidily, and the family will face anticipated challenges in the foreseeable future. While not perfect in execution, The Descendants boldly reminds us that Alexander Payne is one of the foremost American directors who invest in character and not in plot.
Now playing in LA and in New York, The Descendants expands nationally on November 25.