The Descendants

Please press the red button

For the sake of keeping precious brain cells, I will refrain from trying to figure out why The Ides of March received an immediate wide release and The Descendants, a far superior film, had to wait a week.  Of course, my system of reasoning is by way of staunch idealism, and the only real connection between the films is the appearance of George Clooney, who gives us much more to believe in his characterization as the struggling single parent than as the mustache-twirling politician.

The Descendants is a dramedy by Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and About Schmidt.  Normally, when walking out of a film in which the dram trumps the edy, I get a bitter and unsatisfied taste in my mouth, but in this film, it’s the dram we relish.  Even in its funny moments, The Descendants never loses sight of its goals.

The story follows Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer descended from a nearly endless lineage of Hawaiian royalty and white missionaries, living in Hawaii and acting as the sole trustee on 25,000 acres of land on the coast of Kaua’i.  He and his numerous cousins have decided to sell the land for development, which will net them a fortune even their royal ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of.  The main line of tension in the story, however, is the predicament involving Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), recently rendered comatose after a boating accident.  Matt, who refers to himself as the “backup parent,” is now in charge of his two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who, with their respective personal issues (which range from profanity to underage alcohol abuse) don’t give him much chance to be a good dad (at least not immediately).  When Matt finally gets Alex, the older of the girls, to sit and speak to him, he not only breaks the news to her, but receives a shocking bit of news himself: before her accident, Elizabeth had been cheating on him.  From here, the film becomes not quite an exodus, but an adventure of sorts, involving Matt and Alex’s journey to discover the identity of the other man, while the land-selling situation, (which Matt actually wants no part of since the land is full of not only rich history, but also many memories with his family) looms overhead.  Scottie comes along, as does Alex’s seemingly simple-minded surfer friend, Sid (Nick Krause).

The screenwriters wisely forgo the antagonistic relationship between Matt and Alex in favor of making the latter a sympathetic character.  Tension remains, as their views differ on certain things, but being family, they have almost no choice but to gel as companions and to root for each other.  The performances of Clooney and Woodley steal the screen, and Woodley, to my understanding, has already begun collecting supporting actress awards for her portrayal of Alex.  Rightfully so.  An inexplicable beauty lies in her voice, and her every movement, every switch in posture, reveals multitudes.

Beau Bridges, the older brother of Jeff, appears as Cousin Hugh, the eldest of Matt’s money-grubbing family members.  His presence is soothing when he’s being friendly, and rather uncomfortable when he displays his ruthless side.  Bridges creates a memorable character who knows his limitations in film but not in his own world, and given the fact that he appears in only two full scenes, this is an accomplishment.

The Descendants is many parts drama and charm, but also respect and love.  When it became a road movie, I wanted to be in the car.  When Matt and Alex confronted the other man (Matthew Lillard), I wanted to be part of the family distraction team.  Most of all, when the tearful goodbyes finally came, I wanted to put my arm around every character and tell them “it’s going to be okay,” regardless of how many times I have to be told that myself in real life.  Having suffered a death in the family this week, I had trouble maintaining composure during certain scenes, but the final shot, a long one, ended on such a moment, so perfectly understated yet glimmering beneath, that I definitely do not regret seeing this film so soon after.  It’s beautiful.

Alternately, if you want this post to end on a more cheerful note, you’ll be glad to know that March of the Penguins is now old enough (or wholesome enough) to be a metafilm.

The Descendants (2011); written and directed by Alexander Payne (based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings); starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley.

P.S. I just found out I’m only two degrees from the author of the original novel, Kaui Hart Hemmings: we share a mutual friend, writer Mayumi Shimose Poe.

1 Comment

  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review.

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