Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) ends his seven-year absence from feature filmmaking with an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ The Descendants, a dramedy that’s more drama than comedy. If you’re familiar with Payne’s work—and you should, at the very least, be familiar with Election—you know that the line between crying and laughing is where his movies live. Payne’s movies usually have some really funny bits but end up being kind of depressing in the end. The Descendants walks the same line and uses humor to leaven the heavy moments, but I found it to be more optimistic and hopeful than Payne usually is. Perhaps his worldview shifted sometime during his sabbatical.
George Clooney turns in his best performance since O Brother Where Art Thou? as Matt King, a kind of sucky father who is having the worst week in the history of weeks. Matt is the patriarch of one of Hawaii’s oldest families—descended from a white colonial and one of Hawaii’s last princesses, the Kings own the last major tract of virgin land on the islands. The family trust is about to run out, which means if they don’t unburden themselves of this holding the family will be hit with major tax penalties. Further, some of the cousins have gone broke and could really use the cash a sale would give them (not Matt, he states in voice over that his family lives off his earnings as a lawyer and he’s never touched his trust, just like his father before him—subtext, Matt is really, really rich). As the sole executor of the trust, the decision to sell, and to whom, ultimately falls to Matt. Just as he’s on the brink of having to make this decision, the doctors inform him that his wife, who is in a coma due to a head injury sustained in a boating accident, will be taken off life support. Matt only has a few days to tell family and friends so they can say goodbye. AND THEN, his teenaged daughter unkindly lets him know that Mom was cheating before she got hurt.
So you see, Matt’s life is circling the drain and the tropical paradise background throws this into stark relief. There’s a redundant bit of narration at the beginning, stating that just because you live in Hawaii doesn’t mean everything is fun in the sun all the time. I wish they’d cut that because over the course of the movie we see this illustrated explicitly and whenever possible, I prefer to show, not tell. Clooney does an excellent job with Matt’s grief-spiral and his suppressed rage at his wife. Scenes where his aggressive father-in-law accuses Matt of cheaping out on his wife and family (“If she’d had her own boat, this wouldn’t have happened”) are particularly painful since you can see the burning urge to tell his FIL exactly what kind of skanky liar his daughter was in Clooney’s eyes. But he shuts that shit down because the deathbed is no place for confessionals of that sort.
Payne pulled together a strong ensemble to surround Clooney, including Robert Forster (Heroes), Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard (resurrected from the dead apparently), Nick Krause (nothing I’ve ever heard of), and a couple of young actresses, newcomer Amara Miller as Matt’s youngest daughter Scottie and Shailene Woodley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as out-of-control wild child Alex. The movie gets really good when Matt hits the road (or the skies, as it were), heading off to find the man that cuckolded him with his daughters and Alex’s stoner boyfriend, Sid (Krause), in tow. The King family is a portrait of grief—Matt is falling apart at the seams but is trying desperately to hang on for a more appropriate time to break down, Alex is bad behavior and classic acting-out impulse, and Scottie is perfectly fine until she’s not. Matt and Alex have a thorny relationship and the evolution of Alex’s attitude toward her dad is one of the most rewarding emotional journeys in the film.
Clooney and Woodley are terrific together, their chemistry believably familial, and Woodley has enough vim and vigor to go toe to toe with Clooney and come out still standing. But it’s Clooney who drives the whole film, though Krause has a habit of stealing scenes. Payne gives us a glimpse of a man faced with the worst set of circumstances, who cannot express his anger and hurt and has no one to take it out on anyway. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Matt and Alexandra confront Brian Speer, the cheesy real estate broker who had the affair with Matt’s wife. Clooney is all suave smiles and dapper manners but his eyes are crazed, his smile lingers a beat too long, his voice is a shade too chipper. It’s borderline serial killer styles and Lillard infuses Speer with enough confused suspicion to give the scene a jolt of humor.
The Descendants is a great showcase for Clooney, though Woodley makes a huge impression as Alex. I got a chance to speak with her recently and she’s super enthusiastic and charming in a very real-person way. She’s adorably naïve about the ways in which her life is about to change, but she’s also genuinely humble and gracious about what The Descendants means for her career (she’s garnering some Oscar buzz). She also has a really great laugh. I super-extra loved The Descendants; it’s easily one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. I’m a big fan of Payne and am thrilled he’s working again, and the ending hopeful note of The Descendants struck me as an interesting new place for Payne to go at this stage of his life and career.