Alexander Payne has always impressed with his talent for injecting his studies of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy, but never has his knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident.
After a five-year wait since Sideways, Alexander Payne has made his best film yet with The Descendants. Ostensibly a study of loss and coping with a tragic situation, this wonderfully nuanced look at a father and two daughters dealing with the imminent death of his wife and their mother turns the miraculous trick of possibly being even funnier than it is moving. George Clooney is in very top form in a film that will connect with any audience looking for a genuine human story, meaning Fox Searchlight should be able to give this a very long ride through the holidays beginning Nov. 23 and well into the new year. Toronto and New York Film Festival screenings will follow the Telluride bow.
Payne has always impressed with his talent for injecting his studies of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy, but never has his knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident than in this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel. Skillfully scripted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, the tale unfolds over about a week’s time, during which many fundamentals about the life of Matthew King and his family are turned topsy-turvy.
An admittedly distant father, Matthew King (Clooney) is blindsided by his wife Elizabeth’s dreadful speedboat accident that has left her comatose. A successful real estate lawyer in Hawaii, Matthew hasn’t a clue how to deal with his sulky 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and when they go to fetch saucy 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) from her boarding school on the Big Island, they are confronted by a drunken girl spouting obscenities on the beach after curfew.
Despite his shortcomings as a father and, very likely, a husband, Matthew can’t help but stir viewer sympathy, especially when the smart-mouthed Alex insists upon bringing along stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) wherever they go and when confronted by his father-in-law (Robert Forster), a military type who deals with his grief over his beloved daughter by abusing everybody in his vicinity.
But the monkey wrench in the already fraught situation turns up when Alex informs her clueless dad that his wife had been cheating on him. As he so often does, Payne finds a way to augment the impact of a dramatic revelation with out-of-left field humor; in this case, he has Matthew put on some sandals and go running to the home of his wife’s best friend, his determined rush to learn the truth made giddily humorous simply by the sight of his awkward dash. Payne repeats this technique at equally critical moments, such as the denouement of the scene when Matthew finally tracks down the man who has cuckolded him.
Backgrounding the medical and emotional drama—with no hope of recovery, Elizabeth will be let go—is an expressive layer of Hawaiian history; Matthew’s family’s presence on the islands dates back to 1860 and a decision is due to be made within days about selling 25,000 acres of stunning waterfront property in Kuau’i, said to be the largest remaining such undeveloped parcel. Income from a sale would deliver a fortune to Matthew and his many relatives (including a yokel very nicely played by Beau Bridges), and a trip taken to the site by the endearingly conflicted quartet of Matthew, his girls and Sid plays a role in the resolution of this meaningful issue.
A major key to the film’s success are the nuances, fluctuating attitudes, loaded looks and tonal inflections among the main characters; the ensemble work is terrific. Despite her father’s admonitions, Alex continues to fling around dirty words, something then picked up by Scottie. Sid starts off seeming like a total dufus, always saying exactly the wrong thing, but even he gets a significant scene later on that completely changes the way he can be regarded.
The audience does get the satisfaction of Matthew’s fine confrontation with the man who screwed his wife, but this is made legitimately richer by a wonderful follow-up scene involving his wife, indelibly etched by Judy Greer.
But it’s Clooney who carries it all with an underplayed, sometimes self-deprecating and exceptionally resonant performance. He’s onscreen nearly all the time (and narrates as well) and makes it easy to spend nearly two hours with a man forced to carry more than his fair share of the weight of the world on his shoulders for a spell.
Similarly essential to the venture’s success is Woodley, who transforms convincingly from a girl who is reflexively condescending toward her father to one who becomes his eager accomplice and staunchest defender. Miller and Krause are excellent as the other members of what becomes the inner circle, and Patricia Hastie will, one hopes, one day have the opportunity to make a more expressive impression on the big screen than she does in the dramatically thankless but somehow still memorable role of the inert, bedridden Elizabeth (well, she does get a kissing scene with George Clooney, even if her character can’t feel it).
The film notably provides a most welcome untouristy view of Hawaii and everyday life on the islands, amplified by diverse weather (heavy clouds, mist and rain offset the expected sunny vistas). The soundtrack is also exceptional, consisting almost entirely of local tunes used in apt and expressive ways.