Perhaps no working filmmaker in Hollywood captures the disappointment and complexities of the American mid-life crisis better than Alexander Payne. In Election, his acidic satire of political campaigns, he put Matthew Broderick through the wringer as a high school professor who gets entangled in a web of scandal during a high school election. In About Schmidt, his touching tale of an alienated widower (Jack Nicholson), he got us emotionally invested in a man who has essentially given up on life. In the Oscar-winning Sideways, his tragicomic ode to friendship and mid-life crises, he took us on a road trip with Miles Raymond (Paul Giamanti), a brilliant wine aficionado whose dissatisfaction with life is only surpassed by his cynicism. And now, in The Descendants, Payne’s first film in seven years, he ruminates on love, loss and coming to terms with it through the eyes of Matt King who is played by George Clooney in what may become the defining role of his distinguished career.
Matt is a successful lawyer in Hawaii whose ancestral history on the islands date all the way back to the 1860s. At the film’s opening, Matt informs us via voiceover that a good chunk of the family’s property, a stunning valley overlooking the ocean, is up for sale. The sale of this property would make Matt and his cousins extremely wealthy but would also convert the prime estate into a cesspool saturated with beach-front resorts and offices. It’s a tricky situation, no doubt, but Matt has more pressing things on his mind: His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has fallen into a deep coma after a motorboat accident and he is faced with the possibility of raising his daughters, the spiteful Alex (Shailene Woodley) and the attention-seeking Scottie (Amara Miller), on his own – something he discloses that he has no idea how to do (he describes himself as “the backup parent… the understudy”). But when he is informed that Elizabeth was cheating on him, he begins to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about himself.
Although it’s easy to judge the plot of The Descendants, which was adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, as an exercise in dreariness, it’s far from what I’d call a depressing film. No, Payne is far too intelligent to bog down his stories in melodrama. Like About Schmidt and Sideways, The Descendants is a showcase of Payne’s astonishing ability to find humor and tenderness in even the darkest of subjects. Like in those films, Payne sprinkles his screenplay, co-written by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, with the right measure of zaniness and humor that elevates the picture from tragedy into a truly moving and life-affirming experience. It helps that the screenplay is loaded with a ton of beautiful-written dialogues – from Matt’s opening monologue about the harsh realities of living in paradise to the pitch perfect final scene. While I’m reluctant to call it his best work, (Sideways is ingrained into my DNA), this is another touching, witty and absorbing film from the Oscar-winning filmmaker.
As much as Payne brings to the film, none of it would have worked as well if it weren’t for George Clooney’s sensational lived-in performance. Clooney may be one of the biggest movie stars in the world but under all the glamour and charm, it’s easy to forget that he’s also one of our finest actors. His critics knock him for taking roles that play within his comfort zone but in what world are performances in O Brother Where Art Thou?, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck even remotely similar? Clooney’s work in The Descendants is a rich, nuanced thing of beauty that completely does away with all the traits one associates with the actor – you know… the smug grin, the movie-star charisma, the sense of entitlement. When we look into his eyes, we automatically see the sadness and gain the sense that this is a man who knows that in many ways, he has been the one responsible for his situation. Without saying a word, we realize that this man knows that he could have and should have done more. Clooney just doesn’t play Matt King – he embodies Matt King.
Brilliantly supporting Clooney is relative newcomer Shailene Woodley who is mesmerizing as Matt’s rebellious older daughter Alex. When we first meet Alex, she’s a troubled young woman who harbors anger and frustration towards her father for not being the parent he was supposed to be but as the duo bond, she ends up becoming his closest and perhaps only friend. Robert Forester is also commanding as Matt’s foul father-in-law who chastises Matt for not being the husband he should have been. He’s not in it for long but it’s enough to punch out one of the film’s best moments (literally).
The Descendants is an enlightening and invigorating drama about love, loss and learning to let go. While it’s easy to brand it depressing, in the hands of a masterful filmmaker like writer-director Alexander Payne and George Clooney’s magnificent performance, it becomes a touching, funny and even cathartic movie-going experience. One of the year’s best movies.