Sunday, October 16, 2011

New York Film Festival: Alexander Payne's The Descendants (Closing Night Selection)

The Descendants (Closing Night Selection)
A Film By Alexander Payne
United States

            Clouds always seem to hang over the sky in The Descendants, the first feature length film from Alexander Payne since his wine-country comedy Sideways. The film, set in Hawaii, is full of gorgeous sun-soaked beaches and tropical landscapes, but those clouds always seem to hang a shadow in the land. It seems apt then that our protagonist, Matt King, calls out the absurdity of the island as a place only of happiness. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he exclaims in a voiceover.

           The Descendants is a reserved and fascinating maturation for the director of usually much more bizarre comedies like About Schmidt and Election. The film, which stars George Clooney among a cast of character actors and breakout unknowns, is a much more nuanced work with melancholic tones as a man has to come to terms with his identity as a father and a husband. On the surface, and through the way that Mr. Payne adapts the narrative from the novel by Kuai Hart Hemmings, it feels like Mr. Payne is treading on easy territory. But the film is all in the details, and especially Mr. Payne’s direction of the film, as it presents a slow transition of forgiveness through a portrait of an American family, coming to learn what that word really means.

            Although the grating voiceover might put some viewers off from the start, Mr. Clooney easily fits into the world of Mr. Payne’s always older and confused protagonists. Sporting graying hair and a series of embarrassing island shirts, Mr. Clooney looks doughy-eyed as Matt, a real estate lawyer who is the owner of a large land trust on one of the islands. The property has been in his family bloodline dating back to the 19th century, and the trust between him and his cousins on the land is expiring soon, so they must sell it to someone (and reap the millions in rewards).

            But Matt has bigger issues—his wife Elizabeth got thrown out of a boat and stuck in a coma, leaving Matt, a self-described “back-up parent,” to care for ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the destructive 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Alex has been particularly troublesome, and Matt comes upon her sneaking out of her boarding school to get drunk before dragging her home to be part of the family. The problem that faces particularly Matt and Alex is dealing with a wife and mother they both didn’t really love, as Alex reveals that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt, an already distant husband.

            And thus, the three, along with Alex’s “friend” Sid (a moron with a heart of gold, played pitch-perfectly by Nick Krause), go on a journey to visit the family and friends of Elizabeth so they can make their peace with her, as well as track down the mysterious lover. Mr. Payne though allows his narrative to breathe, letting the location’s mellowed spaces of calmness flow through the vein of the characters as they struggle to find easy ground to each other and their relationships. Mr. Payne, filling the score with traditional Hawaiian music, lets tone set the story as everyone tries to remain level-headed in the crisis no one has any desire to deal with.

            Mr. Payne also fills his narratives with great character actors who present the spectrum of life and death. Robert Forster leaves a nasty sting on Matt and Alex as Elzabeth’s traditional and angry father, looking to find blame on anyone and everyone for the loss of his daughter. Beau Bridges fills in particularly nicely as a cousin of Matt, more interested in the millions of his coming by way of the land deal than the fate of Matt’s wife. And Judy Greer, a character actress possibly better known for her comedic work, nails a couple of crucial scenes as an important character better left for audiences to discover.

            If The Descendants feels like a slight work, it’s because Mr. Payne, along with his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, never allow the narrative to ever fall into contrivance, but instead follow the only path it really can. There’s not much of surprise in terms of what one might expect to happen, but Mr. Payne’s visual and tonal approach make it endlessly fascinating. Take one scene, in which Alex tells Matt about Elizabeth’s adultery, and he runs off to the home of a near friend. But running doesn’t describe it, as Matt barrels down the street wearing an awkward pair of sandals that make it less running than sloshing, a perfect moment for how this character lives his life. Mr. Payne, using a widescreen that allows compositions of the frame describe the changing dynamics between the characters (when Matt tells Alex about Elizabeth's worsening condition, he stands on the side as she swims through a filthy pool).

Mr. Clooney, usually cast for his charm and wit, instead gets to play upset, scared, angry, and something no other director has really even attempted, pathetic. It’s a very nice role for Mr. Clooney (as well as obvious Oscar bait), who plays well without other big stars surrounding him, and particularly he and Ms. Woodley, a fragile mess of a teenager with uncharacteristic beauty, work well as they go begin as enemies who must become unlikely allies in an ugly situation. And what better place to show the worst of human emotion coming together than the land of Hawaii? Like all of Mr. Payne’s best work, no one is a good or bad person in The Descendants, but instead driven by the instinctive to survive and and forgive, simply so our time in this world, even if it looks like paradise, can be simply slightly more manageable. 

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