A disintegrating family finds salvation in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, a tender dramedy starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. I actually caught this movie back in November, but as I wasn’t with Flesh Eating Zipper back then and as this movie was just released on Blu Ray this week, now seems like a good time to revisit it. Also, my sister lectured me to try being a little less pessimistic in future reviews and the best way to do that, to my mind, is to review a movie that I’ve already seen and liked.
Matt King (George Clooney) carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He alone faces the decision of whether to sell hundreds of acres of pristine coastal property that has been in his family’s possession for centuries. The decision holds repercussions not only for him and his extended family, who stand to gain millions from the deal, but also the entire community. His comatose wife, following a freak accident, lies on a respirator and the duties of parenting the two children have fallen to him. His younger daughter suffers from an uncontrollable mean streak and the elder daughter appears to have a history of drug use. To top off all of his problems, just as the doctors are about to pull the plug on his wife, poor King finds that she has been cheating on him all along.
The Descendants is a small, solid family drama with a streak of drama comedy. The kind of film that could have easily been made in the 1970’s with Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman in the lead role and Hal Ashby as the director. The kind of film that Hollywood tends not to produce anymore. The screenplay seamlessly alternates between tragedy and comedy. Every character is surprisingly three dimensional. Even the sleaze bag cheater and the pothead teenager rise above their stock roles to reveal unexpected depth and humanity.
George Clooney gives one of the best performances of his career as the embattled lawyer at the center of the storm. On paper it would be easy to imagine the passive, cuckolded husband being played by someone less classically handsome and arguably less like charismatic like Paul Giamatti or Kevin Spacey. King hides from his own feelings, attempts to dodge confrontation, and has to enlist his more forceful daughter to aid him in his journey of self discovery. Not the kind of character Clooney is known for playing.
But Clooney takes the part and makes it his own, cleverly downplaying every characteristic that has made him a household in the first place. He infuses the role with a stoic desperation. It’s easy to imagine this incarnation of Clooney being cuckolded and it’s easy to see him being too insecure to do anything about it. After learning of her infidelity, he bitterly whispers to his comatose wife, “You know, I was going to ask you for a divorce one day.” And we immediately know he’s lying. Just from the way he says it. An impressive feat from the actor given the baggage a movie star of his fame typically brings to a role.
The rest of the cast is equally game. Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Nick Krause, and Robert Forster round out a list of prominent players who all get at least one major comedic or heartfelt scene.
The direction by Payne is unobtrusive. The film is well shot and well acted, but aside from one or two shots there isn’t any ostentation in how the scenes are staged and filmed. Payne places an emphasis on the land the characters’ connection to it. Major scenes are tied together with brief passages that almost serve as a travelogue of Hawaii. Simple yet beautiful images of untamed Hawaiian land hold an undeniable power. Other than that, Payne seems content to stand back and let his actors perform. And that approach pays off here.
The Descendants, however, may not be for everyone. This is a mostly bleak drama with a strain of dark comedy, but it bears a hopeful message. I’m also acutely aware that this site caters to a more action oriented demographic. But any readers willing to keep an open mind should find a lot to like about this movie.