The Descendants (2011)
The Descendants (USA) Directed by Alexander Payne Written by Alexander Payne; Nat Faxon; Jim Rash Starring George Clooney; Shailene Woodley; Amara Miller; Nick Kraues; Beau Bridges; Robert Forster; Judie Greer; Matthew Lillard; Patricia Hastie
Throughout the filmography of Director/Co-Writer, Alexander Payne, there are identifiable recurring themes running though the work. Infidelity, death, aging, loneliness, middle-aged men in crisis who haven’t lived up to their own expectations of themselves, and a variety of other big ideas are woven into the tapestry of everyman social satires with scenes chock full of awkwardness and embarrassment. Payne is a skilled craftsman when it comes to creating films depicting various sub strata of (specifically midwestern American) life, giving his unyielding, cutting, though never fully misanthropic view of the people who populate this world.
Like his three previous films, The Descendants is based on a novel - this one by Kaui Hart Hemmings (who has a cameo in the film), but the departure for Payne is that for the first time he strays from his home state setting of Nebraska (the book and film are set firmly in Honalulu, and Kauai, Hawaii). The story focuses on Matt King (George Clooney), an attorney with a size-able trust fund he doesn’t use, who is mostly of Caucasian ancestry, but also distantly related to a native 19th century island princess. When Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Joanie in the novel), played by Patrice Hastie, is involved in a freak boating accident that sends her into a coma, he is forced to juggle a lucrative pending land sale for his enormous extended family (he is the trustee and the decision is his), while playing sole parent to his two troubled daughters, seventeen year old Alex (Shailene Woodley), and ten year old and Scottie (Amara Miller).
Clooney is Clooney, and despite the movie star looks manages to give off the air of a boring, middle aged man who has settled, perhaps too willingly, into his life of quiet desperation. While his wife’s coma, and the the news that follows that she will not recover, are obviously the inciting events dominating the film, what winds up motivating much of the action is the revelation that she had been unfaithful, and his subsequent quest to track down his wife’s lover. The pressure he is under is compounded by the imminent day of decision regarding the sale of the family’s vast private, undeveloped land, a deal most of his relatives have ravenously pursued since (as many of them are not in the same financial position as Matt) it will dramatically improve their lives.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of The Descendants is the examination of a well-off family that was clearly imploding before the tragedy. We hear about Matt’s wife’s trouble with drinking, and her pursuit of dare devil activities; Alex’s problems with drugs and penchant for older men; and Scottie’s emotional issues (those these are less well defined). Matt has been neglecting his family for some time, immersed in his work, emotionally checked out, and feeling powerless to contend with the domineering, erratic females who surround him.
Hawaii is ably photographed by Payne regular Phedon Papamichael, and we are privy to an array of beautiful scenes of nature - ocean, beach, rain, lush greens. Native Hawaiian music dominates the score, and there are obvious ideas here about the importance of respecting unsullied lands, and native culture, as well as clear efforts made to represent the island in an authentic way, though no real time is spend with any full blooded native people, who wind up merely as backdrop as the tale of these “Haolies” unfolds. If possible, the film feels like it gets the details right and at the same time misses out on some kind of important essence of the spirituality that is so important to the island.
It is not that this is anything less than a quality Hollywood film - something there is definitely not enough of nowadays, and many scenes involving Matt interacting with his daughters; Alex’s dopey friend, Sid (Nick Krause); and in-laws, Scott (an excellent Robert Forster) and Altzheimer’s sufferer Alice (Barbara Southern) are spot on, as is Matt and Alex’s entire search for closure in seeking out the man who cuckolded Matt. There is something very James L. Brooksian about the film - nothing subversive or particularly new to be found (Citizen Ruth it ain’t), but a nice story coupled with solid performances.
The Descendants also brings to mind a film like Up in the Air, made by a director, Jason Reitman, who might be a younger version of Payne. The difference being that the wider social issue in that film (namely, the employment crisis) felt more connected to both real life and the main narrative, and thusly less tacked on (though ironically it was). Here, the land sale plotline unfortunately feels too often like a device that isn’t completely integrated in the family drama/comedy we see unfold. The real emotion in the piece lies there, manifested most acutely by several excellent scenes involving Clooney and eldest daughter Alex (Woodley is the surprise and consistently good throughout) that feel particularly raw.
Though undoubtedly the film feels lived-in - no small feat, and a mark of a strong, experienced director in control of his material, there is ultimately some connection missed between the two story-lines that renders the final product a bit flat. With that said, Descendants will likely get plenty of recognition come awards season.