Few filmmakers can satirize modern crises as well as Alexander Payne. The Descendants juggles death, betrayal, and greed in such a laid-back surfer-dude attitude that you can’t help laughing with it.
The story follows Matt King (George Clooney) a distant father, an absent husband, and lawyer whose family are direct descendants of royalty that own 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian paradise. Their ownership of this land, however, will expire in 7 years and as figurehead of this royal clan, it’s Matt’s decision whether to sell the land for development or figure out a way to keep it. But he has bigger problems.
His wife lies in a coma after a boating accident, rendering him the sole parent to his two daughters. 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) is a handful to his inexperience – he is the self described “back up parent” – so Matt enlists the help of his angry 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley). Her anger, it turns out, stems from something other than teenage angst. She drops a bombshell: her mother was having an affair. Thus, the search for the mystery man begins.
This film moves at a pace that’s reminiscent of About Schmidt (another film from Payne). It feels much longer than it’s 114 minutes. Payne over utilizes musical interludes of the family walking the beach, but who can blame him with a location like Hawaii? The beautiful scenery is great motivation for a story that feels very much like a crisis in paradise. In fact, most of the heated interchanges within this film are actually played below the surface through amicable conversation – though we know what’s really bubbling there.
Clooney does a good job portraying a man in conflict that’s constantly putting on a good face for his daughters. In fact, he only shows his true feelings in a few scenes. One such instance occurs when he finally meets his wife’s lover, Brain Speers (Matthew Lillard), and even then he tries to remain amicable by first explaining his wife’s condition before venting his anger, “Elizabeth is dying. Wait… Fuck you! And she’s dying.” The film is constantly walking this line between drama and comedy, as it makes uncomfortable situations slip into the absurd. However, none of the real emotion is lost in Clooney’s performance. He shows real acting prowess as he says goodbye to his wife towards the end of the film, which is one of the most genuine scenes in his career. He certainly deserves all of the attention he’s getting.
Even Shailene Woodley, of Secret Life of An American Teenager “fame,” is good here. Perhaps her performance is more of a backdrop to Clooney’s but she complements it well enough. The moment she’s told of her mother’s irreversible condition she slips underwater and cries, motivating one of the most powerful shots of the film. Again, the intensity here may be more attributable to the cinematography rather than her acting. Still, the powers that be will awe at her for being involved in this film and we should prepare to see Woodley popping up in bigger roles soon. And let’s not forget her dopey boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), the comic relief to our tragic story. I suppose he is a rather obvious plot device who offers moments of dramatic reprieve as any good plot device should. Then again, you have to enjoy when Robert Forster, playing the over bearing grandfather, bluntly tells Sid, “I’m going to hit you.” A moment made all the more hilarious when he subsequently smacks the kid in the face.
The Descendants is not the goofy slap-stick comedy that the trailer will have you believe. Well, it is and it isn’t. Clooney does run out of his house in boat shoes the moment he learns of his wife’s infidelity. But this isn’t light fair ala Little Miss Sunshine nor is it the deceivingly dramatic The Kids Are Alright (whenever a movie shares a title from a little known song from The Who – even though The Who are great – you should be wary, this link and comment presented to you by Chris, i.e. The Bagg). It’s an Alexander Payne film with nuances and weaknesses. It’s more comedic than it is dramatic, partly because the situation these folks find themselves in doesn’t seem real. It’s closer akin to a play about human emotions, but it’s a good examination of relationships, what they mean, how they’re perceived, and how one man might react given the right circumstances.