Directed By: Alexander Payne
Written By: Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nat Faxon, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, and Judy Greer
Director of Photography: Phedon Papamichael, Editor: Kevin Tent, Production Designer: Jane Ann Stewart
Rated: R for naughty language, often coming out of the most unexpected places.
Clouds always seem to hang over the luscious 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’s image of the land of perpetual happiness. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he exclaims in the opening voiceover.
The Descendants is a very reserved and often 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, following a man who must come to terms with his identity as a father and a husband. Payne garnered an early reputation as an over-the-top satirist, but he’s always but much better observer of the human emotions that bubble under the surface. The film, adapted from the novel by Kuai Hart Hemmings, may feel like treading along easy territory as it wanders through its loose plot. But as a visual stylist (his best effort yet as a director), Payne 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, Clooney easily fits into the world of Mr. Payne’s often old yet still immature protagonists. Sporting graying hair and a series of embarrassing island shirts, 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, and it’s up to Matt to decide who so the extended family can reap the millions in rewards.
But Matt has bigger issues—his wife Elizabeth got thrown out of a boat and left 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. Far from a road trip film, Payne 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. Filling the score with traditional Hawaiian music, The Descendants sets an oddball but beautiful tone as the characters attempt to remain level-headed in the crisis no one has any desire to deal with.
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 Elizabeth’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 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. A character tells Matt late in the narrative, “I didn’t try to make it happen; it just happened.” So much of The Descendants feels based on that premise as it meanders around, as Matt searches for meaning to his life when the simplicity of the matters are too easy to believe. 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 boat-sized sandals that make it less running than sloshing, a pitch-perfect character moment. 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).
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 unique role for Clooney, who plays well without other big stars surrounding him, and particularly he and Woodley, a fragile mess of a teenager with uncharacteristic beauty that strives between innocence and maturity, 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 Payne’s work, no one is a good or bad person in The Descendants, but instead driven by the instinctive to survive and forgive, simply so our time in this world, even if it looks like paradise, can be simply slightly more manageable.