Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Friday, 27 January 2012

Review: The Descendants

Alexander Payne's latest is a funny and moving masterpiece

Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriter: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Cast: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alex King), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Nick Krause (Sid), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh) and Robert Forster (Scott Thorson)
Plot: A father's life is thrown into turmoil when his wife is plunged into a coma and he has to take care of his children, right at the point that he has to make a major financial decision. On top of this, he discovers that his wife has been having an affair, and resolves to go and find the man she was sleeping with to tell him about her condition.
Running Time: 114m 54s

Alexander Payne is the master of the mid-life crisis. Whether it was Matthew Broderick’s disillusioned high school teacher in Election, or Jack Nicholson’s bewildered widower in About Schmidt, or Paul Giamatti’s lonely wine-snob in Sideways, Payne focuses on middle-aged men who still haven’t worked out love, life and, quite often, death.

In The Descendants, he is on familiar territory once again. George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer, whose wife has been plunged into a coma after a boating accident, right at the point that he, the sole remaining trustee of thousands of acres of virgin Hawaiian land, has to decide who he’s going to sell it to before the trust dissolves. Stale love and wrangling about property: it’s what I’m expecting from my fifties.

On top of this, Matt’s two daughters are a nightmare combination. 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is very clever, precocious and causing trouble at school. 17 year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) is a beautiful, recovering junkie, who likes spending most of her time with idiot boys. Matt doesn’t know how to deal with them. He’s been too busy working and earning, despite his philosophy that, no matter how wealthy you are, you give your children enough to do something, and not so much that they do nothing.

That philosophy, however, has been deeply flawed and Matt is the only person who hasn’t noticed.  He discovers that his wife had been having an affair, a fact their mutual friends kept hidden from him. His wife’s father (Robert Forster) lectures him continually about how his little girl deserved more from her marriage. As for Matt, he’s been living next to the tropical beauty of Hawaii for years and years and all he has to say is “Paradise? Paradise can go f*** itself”.

It is indeed hard to see paradise in the Honolulu location – a dense, pale-grey, urban sprawl – but there is more elsewhere, and, to that end, this is a surprisingly optimistic film from Payne. The sentiments have been detectable in his previous works, but never before has he made a piece which so definitely values beauty and so unequivocally rejects tangible wealth.

The main thrust of the plot is Matt’s attempt to hunt down his wife’s lover, and the ride is richly comic and moving. It is driven by another triumphant lead performance from George Clooney. He gets many great lines and hits every single one of them and is as watchable as ever, but he achieves a level of truthfulness which he hasn’t had since his self-directed supporting role in Good Night, and Good Luck.

It’s actually an untypical Clooney part. Matt is not glamorous or sexy or suave. He is thoroughly ordinary in many ways. That fact that this ordinariness works so well on screen is as much down to Alexander Payne’s deft adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel (with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) as it is to the effortlessness of Clooney’s performance. Payne once again strikes the resonant chords he hit with Sideways, his last film, which is now some seven years away. He always creates characters that are utterly human: ridiculous at times, poignant at others; witty at times, insensitive at others.

Most of the charm of Payne’s work comes from his humour, which is laugh out loud funny. One of the reasons why About Schmidt does not live long in the memory is that there are not enough good laughs. This, however, is funnier than Sideways, thriving on clashes of personality and the comedy of awkwardness. It is also Payne’s most moving film to date: a portrait of a man waking up to discover that his life is hanging together by a thread, infuriated and hurt by a betrayal from the one woman he cannot bear the thought of losing.

It’s not just about Matt. The daughters are equally as important and well-treated, with Woodley shining in a breakthrough performance as the troublesome Alex who is forced to grow-up very quickly. Accompanying her is Sid (Nick Krause), a tag-along slacker who is initially something of an oddity but is consistently funny and deeper than first meets the eye. Though Sid seems to join the family for the duration of the film, it is only the key three who remain in the film’s last shot. There is no tidy resolution and much is left unsaid. Some will find it saccharine. Others will find it to be a quietly affecting, amusing family drama.

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